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Lanark — A Life in Four Books

Lanark by Alasdair Gray
Lanark by Alasdair Gray

Sometimes a statement that is ridiculed still bears a kernel of truth. The Internet really is a “series of tubes” — tubes that I tend to journey through frequently without a clear destination, much like the “mystery tours” my wife and I will sometimes take in our car. Sure, these wild expeditions may be considered by some to be a waste of time (or gas). Nevertheless, sometimes Brownian motion can lead you to unexpected discoveries.

One such Internet tube which is often the starting point for my random walks is the tube known as YouTube. Hidden among the various Trololo songs and Hitler Downfall parodies in YouTube are some real gems. Things like Christopher Hitchens in debate, Juya Wang concerts in high definition, Cab Calloway performing at his peak, episodes of The Thunderbirds (F.A.B!),  Gigliola Cinquetti singing Dio, Come Ti Amo, Marc-André Hamelin, Helene Fischer, Shirley Bassey, Renée Fleming, — the list of stuff to watch and listen to is virtually infinite. I have discovered a lot by surfing through YouTube.

And so it was that I looked up a favorite author of mine, Iain M. Banks. Unfortunately Banks died last year, of gall bladder cancer. He was a Scottish author, living on the shores of the Firth of Forth. He wrote both main stream fiction and science fiction. Most of his science fiction features a future galactic society known as “the Culture,” a near-utopia where there is no longer any want due to advances in technology. However humans, despite living the good life, are not their own masters, as artificial intelligence in the form of super-smart “Minds” has far outstripped human intelligence. The science fiction stories and novels of Banks are rife with clever plots and a wry sense of humor.

On YouTube there is the terminal interview with Banks, done at his home by a BBC reporter. The interview was done just a couple weeks before he died. Much like Christopher Hitchens, a fellow atheist, Banks shows little overt concern about his coming demise and indeed jokes about it. It is remarkable to see such sanguinity in the face of imminent death. But this post isn’t really about Banks (but go read his stuff anyway).

No, this is where the tangential nature of the Internet shows its face. In the midst of the interview with Banks, there is discussion of the novel Lanark, by Alasdair Gray. From the discussion it was clear that Banks admired Gray and this novel in particular. A little further reading on Wikipedia, and I found that Lanark is considered by many as the best novel written by a Scotsman in modern times. Being half a Scotsman myself, I was intrigued.

I am not a particularly fast reader, but I do read continuously and I am getting on in years, so I have read a lot. Much of what I have read may be considered by literary high-brows as trash: pulp fiction from the 1930s like Doc Savage or The Spider, however to counter this I have also read and enjoyed a lot of books that no one would consider trash: everything by Thomas Hardy from Desperate Remedies to Jude the Obscure, for example, or the works of all 3 of the Bronte sisters (yes, even Anne Bronte’s 2 novels) to William Makepeace Thackeray. I am somewhat of an omnivore when it comes to books, able to appreciate both Edgar Rice and William S. Burroughs. So, realizing that there was a great novel out there that I hadn’t read, by a Scotsman to boot, I went ahead and downloaded Lanark to my e-reader (which is just my phone at this point, my Nexus 7 tablet having kicked the bucket).

Lanark is a strange work. It contains the stories of two characters, seemingly unrelated, but possibly the same person. The character Lanark lives in a nightmare world, the city of Unthank, possibly in our future, but a future that is frankly psychotic. The characters are grotesque, à la Dickens or Mervyn Peake. Nevertheless the world of Lanark is certainly allegorical, with components paralleling our own governments, technology, and corporations. The satire is biting and scathing. Gray lists his own influences in the book (referring to these influences as “plagiarisms”), but the net result is certainly unique. There is a mixture of horror, humor, and pathos. Poor Lanark is unlucky in love and not appreciated, to say the least!

The other character is Duncan Thaw, who, as Gray himself admits, is largely autobiographical. Thaw’s story takes place in post-war Glasgow, and there are no fantastic elements to it. It is a story of an awkward adolescent, artistic to be sure, but also unlucky in love, unappreciated, and doomed by his own obsessions. It is touching, painful at times to read, and sad. But goodness, so well-written!

What is the connection between Lanark and Thaw? It’s not clear, though there are hints they are the same character (e.g. the sea-shells in Lanark’s pocket; Thaw’s last scene occurs on a beach). Gray plays with the structure of the novel which is in 4 sections. Books 3 and 4, the parts dealing with Lanark, wrap around Books 1 and 2, the parts centered on Thaw. Yes the order of the books is really 3, 1, 2, and 4. In addition there are similarly displaced Prologue and Epilogue, neither coming in the usual spot. At one point Lanark actually meets the book’s author, which is one of the funniest and strangest parts of the book. Following this there are footnotes referencing past and future chapters and characterizing the various “plagiarisms” supposedly present. Don’t skip those footnotes referencing future chapters because you are concerned about spoilers. Some of the oddest and funniest footnotes refer to chapters that don’t even exist in the book.

So what to make of this large (590 pages) book, first published in 1981? Like most great books, it is sui generis, a tour de force that is not repeatable. It was Gray’s first novel, taking 22 years to write, and none of his following works have been as popular. Inspired by Kafka, Goethe, Melville , H.G. Wells, William Blake, Dante, Vonnegut, as well as a slew of other authors that Gray lays out in a postscript, it nevertheless bears little resemblance to any other book I have read.  Despite the surrealism of the Unthank chapters, it is the very human and sad life of Thaw in the dreary city of Glasgow that is the most touching and memorable portion of the novel.

So I thank Iain Banks, not only for his wonderful novels, but also for leading me in his last days to Alasdair Gray and the marvelously bizarre Lanark.

By mannd

I am a retired cardiac electrophysiologist who has worked both in private practice in Louisville, Kentucky and as a Professor of Medicine at the University of Colorado in Denver. I am interested not only in medicine, but also in computer programming, music, science fiction, fantasy, 30s pulp literature, and a whole lot more.

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