Lanark, by Alasdair Gray

“I wish I could make you like death a little more. It’s a great preserver. Without it the loveliest things change slowly into farce, as you will discover if you insist on having much more life.”

Lanark is one of those huge, pain-in-the-ass, crufty novels that I just wasn’t going to be able to avoid much longer. I find that I particularly enjoy Scottish literature, for whatever reason, and I plan on reading Iain Banks’ The Bridge fairly soon, which was largely influenced by Lanark. It was inevitable that I’d need to check this one off my list sooner rather than later.

“I was absolutely knocked out by Lanark.” Banks mentioned, in conversation with Andrew Wilson. “I think it’s the best in Scottish literature this century. It opened my eyes. I had forgotten what you could do – you can be self-referential, you can muck about with different voices, characters, time-streams, whatever. Lanark had a huge effect on The Bridge. I’m quite happy to acknowledge that debt.”

In Rodge Glass’s biography of Alasdair Gray, Irvine Welsh remarked that Lanark is: “probably the closest thing Scotland’s ever produced to Ulysses. What it said to me was, it would be fucking great to be a writer.”

According to the tailpiece present in Canondale’s The Canons edition: “How Lanark Grew” Lanark is both largely autobiographical—a fact made more interesting by the book’s fantastical nature—and was written over the course of thirty years. Alasdair Gray’s early masterpiece definitely has some flaws—weak secondary characters, poorly written female characters—but is such a wild ride that I didn’t mind them too much.

“You pessimists always fall into the disillusion trap,” said the cheerful man cheerfully. “From one distance a thing looks bright. From another it looks dark. You think you’ve found the truth when you’ve replaced the cheerful view by the opposite, but true profundity blends all possible views, bright as well as dark.”

The book staunchly refuses to comply with the usual rules of genre and structure. It begins with Book Three, set in the fantastical city of Unthank, followed by a nicely nested modernist coming of age story-within-a-story: Prologue, Book One, Interlude, and Book Two. We then continue on in the world of Unthank with: Book Four, followed by an Epilogue, and then strangely… four additional chapters. What an unorthodox structure. The chapter Index itself even plays a narrative role, as do the section titles present on the top of each page.

The Epilogue is where the book really shines in my opinion, and where all of the threads come together. I can’t say much about it, but I will mention two things: It’s much more playful than the rest of the novel, and it contains an annotated list of plagiarisms present in Lanark, which is just… an incredible idea. I have to applaud Gray for this inclusion. It’s wonderful, and remarkably helpful for unpacking the themes and influences present in this bizarre narrative.

“It is a dangerous thing to suddenly deprive a man of hope—he can turn violent. It is important to kill hope slowly, so that the loser has time to adjust unconsciously to the loss. We try to keep hope alive till it has burned out the vitality feeding it. Only then is the man allowed to face the truth.”

I could’ve actually done without the four chapters that succeeded the Epilogue. I found them mostly pointless, and the Epilogue itself has a sort of choose your own ending option baked in that I think would’ve worked remarkably well as an ending itself.

All in all, Lanark is for all of you that prefer your fiction to contain heavy doses of both self-referential, weird as hell fantasy, and depressingly bleak modernist realism, all of which is coated with vaguely Marxist under and overtones, as well as fascinating social and philosophical commentary on free will, art, and what constitutes a satisfying life.     

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