This is a new 40th anniversary commemorative hardback edition of Alasdair Gray’s much-admired first novel, which was first published in 1981. The setting? Glasgow – kind of. The plot? One man’s life – if I go any further it’ll sound like some kind of sci-fi/mystery novel written by the twisted spawn of Kafka and Homer. But Scottish. This wouldn’t do it justice and would lessen the ambiguity that is central to the book. Confused? You will be.
The life in question is that of Duncan Thaw/Lanark (again, I’ll not ruin it for you). For the ‘hero’ of such an ambitious book, he’s surprisingly lacking in any real character. His companion, Rima, says: “I like you, Lanark, and of course I depend on you, but you aren’t very inspiring, are you?” Despite, or because of, this deficiency he is a strange and screwed up individual. As another friend says: “You scare me sometimes, Duncan. The things you say arenae altogether sane. It all comes from wanting to be superior to ordinary life.” But this lack of personality and weirdness is the point, I suppose. He serves as a blank canvas onto which Gray paints the joy, misery and sheer absurdity of life, and his ‘out-of-placeness’ shows how surreal so-called normal life is:
“Remember Duncan, when most people leave school they have to live by work which can’t be liked for its own sake and whose practical application is outside their grasp. Unless they learn to work obediently because they’re told to, and for no other reason, they’ll be unfit for human society.”
Real Madrid-1, Surreal Madrid-fish.
Thaw’s journey is comparable to that of an ancient Greek hero, but without the heroism. His tortuous journey (odyssey) is always in search of sunlight and wide-open spaces – something not in abundance in Gray’s Glasgow. (A committed nationalist he may be, but a Scottish Tourist Board job isn’t on the cards.) In fact the only really joyful parts of what is a generally bleak world-view come from descriptions of space and greenery. When Thaw/Lanark finally arrives somewhere (Provan) that offers this, he says: “…all my life I’ve wanted this, yet I seem to know it well.”
There is a playfulness at work, though, as Gray has fun with the form of the novel. In the Epilogue we hear the voice of the author (through the character, Nastler) as he explains the reasoning behind the book and goes so far as to offer a refreshing Index of Plagiarisms. This playfulness is not just for its own sake. For example, the jumbling of the Books’ order (Three, One, Two then Four), which could be seen as mere mischief, serves a purpose. It makes sense in the fact that it doesn’t make sense (bear with me). By joining Thaw/Lanark in the ‘later’ stages of his life, we know this is no simple life story and are in the realms of the imagination and the downright weird. Otherwise the jolt between the two ‘stages’ of his life would have turned the work into two separate entities, negating one of the book’s main themes – that life on earth can be hell and death is always on our shoulder. HE Bates this ain’t.
Any Cop?: Lanark is, in every way, a big book – in sheer text, scope and ambition. It should be, considering the quarter of a century it took to write the thing. This is foremost a book of ideas that disturbs and persistently provokes thought about the human condition and the world we live in.