Alasdair Gray, 1981
Premise, Books Three and Four
Lanark initially appears to be about a loner named Lanark crossing
paths with a group of bohemians in a run-down city, but weird details suggest
that all is not as it seems: daylight only appears for a few minutes at a time,
we learn, and most of the residents are afflicted with diseases that cause them
to grow mouths on their hands or start to turn into dragons. Is this hell?
Premise, Books One and Two
Who is Lanark anyway? The story of his life before arriving in
this strange place takes up 250 pages in the middle of the book, as
we learn about the childhood, adolescence, and descent into mental
illness of an aspiring art student named Duncan Thaw.
Wait, the middle? Yes. Lanark begins with Book Three,
then the Prologue. The Epilogue is lodged in the middle of Book
Four. So very cutesy.
Lanark also engages in a practice that helped drive me away
from that contemporary novel class last semester: it assembles words
into patterns that do not correspond to anything imaginable. Sometimes
this is in the service of surrealism; at other times it is meant to
convey madness. Either way, it is representative of one of my least
favorite trends in the history of literature.
Even in the more naturalistic passages, Lanark has some pretty
serious strikes against it. The middle 250 pages are about a neurotic
art student who ties himself up in knots over philosophy and religion
between bouts of asthmatic wanking to sadistic daydreams. At times the
protagonist is altogether too reminiscent of Ignatius
P. Reilly for comfort.
Furthermore, Lanark is tremendously self-referential. At one
point Thaw is chastised for attempting to write a work much like
Lanark. At another point Lanark meets the author, who has
him read a bit of Lanark. I wonder whether I am doomed to
read scenes like this as punishment for having gone to the postmodern
well too many times myself. Excruciating.
Oh, yeah, and it's British.
And yet I enjoyed this book quite a bit! The story is told as a
series of vignettes, and after most of them I found myself thinking,
"Very good! That was well-wrought!"
For the most part, I liked the surrealism. While I hate the old
"ha ha, these words don't correspond to anything" trick, I like
surrealism when it is matter-of-factly describing things that aren't
part of normal human experience. (I don't think that is enough to
classify it as magical realism, but I won't argue the point.) Hrm.
I keep making these vague claims, but since this is the evaluation
section and not commentary, I feel like I shouldn't spoil the best
parts but let you discover them for yourself. The prologue, for
instance, is marvelous, marvelous enough that you should just go to
the library and read it even if you're not going to read this book.
(It starts on page 108 in my copy, but you don't actually need to
have read the first 107 pages to enjoy it.)
I liked the story of Duncan Thaw, even if I didn't like Duncan
Thaw (whom, incidentally, I could not help visualizing as The Boy
from Scary Go Round). It's like they say: what the story is about
is not as important as how it is about it. Any life, this well
observed, would have made for an absorbing novel. And when the
life is— well, I'll save that for the commentary.
I liked the fact that Scotland and particularly Glasgow played
such an important role in the story. True, it's a place I have
no interest in visiting — we're talking about a story in
which the word "haggis" appears, not as a joke, but as a sensible
and indeed unremarkable dining option — but I like geographically
grounded narrative, and Gray is talented enough to make the local color
intriguing rather than alienating. The one thing I didn't care
for was the wink-wink nudge-nudge involved in the discussions of
whether Glasgow could ever be the setting of a great work of art.
All in all, I would say Lanark succeeds as an entertaining
novel and also as a political treatise. It is, as I said, well-wrought.
Which makes it doubly annoying that Gray insists on unraveling what
he has woven. I mean, seriously, bad enough that he writes himself
into the book, but to then list all of Lanark's source material,
and speculate on its place in the corpus of Western literature, and
suggest possible criticisms (such as self-indulgence) and then defend
against those criticisms and then undermine those defenses with footnotes
and STOP STOP STOP JUST STOP
I'm working my way through my recommendations list; a short while ago,
for instance, I checked out a book that had been
recommended to me in 1997. Lanark was recommended to me
in 1998, so I'm making progress. I'd never heard of it, and it's out
of print in the US; the guy who recommended it to me was European, and
apparently it's a cult favorite in Europe. He said, "It's a novel where
girl are *mean* to say the least," so I imagined it would be something
like The Shape of Things. It's not! In
fact, I wouldn't say that the girls are particularly mean at all. Yes,
the girls at school ignore Thaw, and the few he does manage to make a
connection with tend to mess with his head, treating him nicely and then
breaking dates — but I don't think you can call a girl "mean" just
because she's not into you. Lanark's mate Rima does say nasty things to
him sometimes, but even she isn't entirely cruel... just a bad match.
So where did this fellow get the idea that the girls in Lanark
are so mean? Maybe from the fact that their inattention does destroy
One of the things Lanark gets right is the link between female
inattention and unhealthy attitudes towards art. In Lanark,
Thaw can't get girls, so he cathects onto a church mural he's been
commissioned to paint, and when that project goes sour, he goes mad.
Crake in Oryx and Crake claims that art
is a megaphone by which smaller male frogs turn their weak ribbits into
great croaks and thereby attract mates. I wouldn't go that far, but I
would propose the following: a male heterosexual youth needs female
attention. This does not need to entail sex, and indeed sex is not
sufficient — though it's a plus. But yes. A boy needs to know
that there is a girl who thinks that he is the cat's pajamas. If there
is no such girl, he tends to get... worked up about things. He can
sublimate this in a number of activities. If he tries his hand at an
art form, perhaps he gets worked up about his art. Now, Crake is wrong
— when I was Thaw's age and working on my book, I didn't think that
I would become a famous writer and thereby get girls. But I did sometimes
think, "Maybe there is someone out there who can relate to this story.
Maybe writing it down and getting it published will help me find her."
But I didn't think the odds of this were actually very good. No, the
chief dynamic at play was simply this: the energy that should have gone
into interacting with a girl who liked me went into the book instead.
I was able to keep from fooling myself into thinking that that made the
book as important as the girl would have been. But I can see how easy
it would be to fall into that trap.
I also wrote some interactive fiction around this time, and the guy who
recommended this book to me was actually interviewing me about my IF. I
have since become much less involved with IF. My disengagement came in
stages. First I left the IF "arts" group, because my interest in discussing
IF in the abstract, which had always been pretty minimal, ceased to outweigh
my annoyance at the kooks populating the group. I stuck around on the
"games" group for a while longer, but as I stopped following the IF pieces
being released, it stopped being worth dealing with the kooks. Who are
these kooks? Well, see, not everyone who is bereft of female attention is
capable of creating his own art. Sometimes he gets worked up about other
people's. And hangs out on Usenet.
Sometimes he is a genuine psychotic who reads a harmless epigraph in an
IF manual and cries, "You have bastardized. Do not be so proud of this. It
is disgusting; you are not showing off, but spitting upon decent works. [...]
You offend literacy. I myself deeply care what Wittgenstein (and Eliot) wrote
and thought, and I hate to see it bastardized."
Sometimes he is merely a sociopath who defends his attacks on everyone who
has ever written a piece of IF by claiming, "Many people here think I'm a troll,
a destructive presence, someone who doesn't care about IF. But if truth is to be
told no one cares more about IF than I do. I'm the demanding mother who disciplines
her son not because she hates him, but because she loves him. I'm 'trolling' you
people not because I hate you, but because I love and respect interactive fiction."
Sometimes he is a stalker, obsessing about a single author and declaring that the
"worship" of this author "has gotten out of hand in the IF community, when the
truth is that there is little substance to him," and that this is as important
an issue as world hunger, because "injustice is injustice."
One of the themes of Lanark is that people who are getting laid do not
say things like this.
Thaw goes crazy because without a girl to deeply care for, he must instead
deeply care about his mural. Which is better than deeply caring what Wittgenstein
wrote and thought. But not as good as deeply caring for a girl and having a girl
deeply care for him.
Thaw goes crazy because without a girl to love and respect, he must instead
love and respect the vision he is trying to capture. Which is better than loving
and respecting interactive fiction. But not as good as loving and respecting a
girl and having a girl love and respect him. (Ironically enough, the same guy
who claimed such deep love for IF is the same one who claimed that "interactive
fiction won't make you rich and famous and it's unlikely to improve your sex
life." Buh? Just off the top of my head I can think of eight couples who met
through IF. I've been in two myself. IF is actually a dramatically successful
way to improve your sex life. But not, I suppose, if you're a sociopathic troll.)
Thaw is driven so crazy by his failure that he kills himself. It was brought
to my attention that the aforementioned sociopath recently turned his attention to
me and expressed surprise that I did not follow Thaw's example given that Ready,
Okay! is out of print. I thought that was a revealing remark. I recognized
the mindset, both from Lanark and from my own past. It is the mindset of
someone who, like Thaw, has never known love.
The troll reprints the mild criticism — which he terms "devastating" —
that he was able to find in the reviews. For instance, Publisher's Weekly
said, "The book's first half is hampered by sluggish backstory, and is often
overstuffed with throwaway dialogue." The troll then solemnly avers that "it is
difficult to imagine a more profound failure" than this, displaying quite a lack of
imagination. Three points:
- I agree with the criticism! As I've mentioned in previous articles, I've been
trimming down the overwritten bits from time to time. The printed version is
389 pages and it should probably clock in closer to 300.
- The criticism is invariably followed by embarrassingly fulsome praise. The
very next sentence after the troll's quote claims that "Cadre's talent shines
bright in the second half, where he synchronizes pacing, dialogue and crisp
characterization, bringing this darkly engaging assortment of young castaways
to vibrant life." Devastating!
- It is difficult to be very wounded by criticism written by people you don't
care about when someone you like is bestowing smoochies upon you.
It's funny — the troll tries to put himself in my shoes, but since he, like
Thaw, leads such a loveless existence that he is unable to imagine any other, he
assumes that my skin must be as thin as his. He also assumes that I would confuse
criticism of something I wrote with criticism of myself. I mean, let's take the
trolley to the land of make-believe and imagine that these reviews actually were
as negative as the troll suggests, that they said I was a bad writer. Um, so?
That is the sort of criticism that stings if you are a straight adolescent
male receiving no female attention and therefore pour your frustrated energy into
your art instead of into your love life. It stings if you therefore
interpret criticism as evidence that you are unworthy of or will never find love.
Thaw wouldn't be able to take it; Thaw would have a crippling asthma attack. But
when you're secure in the knowledge that you are loved by one of these magnificent
creatures that torment Duncan Thaw so? Shockingly enough, you stop getting bent
out of shape over devastating blows such as a reviewer noting that a book you
wrote a long time ago has "some flaws."
I left the IF newsgroups because I was annoyed by the way that every thread
became a forum for kooks, especially the troll in question, to play out their
psychodramas. But it has been slightly amusing to watch this sociopath, whose
life revolves around penning over-the-top attacks against anyone who comes to
prominence in an exceedingly obscure medium, attempt to ply his trade against
me and wind up making a fool of himself time and time again. His initial tack was
to try to paint me as a caricature of white liberal guilt, which might have been
more successful if not for the fact that I'm not white. Next he tried
to accuse me of sexism because of my Cinemax game I-0... only it turned
out that he had copied his post word-for-word from someone else's, a humiliating
revelation for someone who prided himself on his ability to pen a venomous screed.
In this most recent attempt, he pulled off quite a trifecta. He again harped
on the fact that I had once opined that I preferred "BCE" to "BC" — as
though that somehow cast me in a bad light. (I'm reminded of nothing so much
as Homer Simpson thinking he's got Ned Flanders now because Flanders has
paint cans in his garage. I can picture the troll chortling, "Yes! Ol'
Painty-Can Ned! Zing! Make sure you mention the paint cans every time you
see him!") He again resorted to plagiarism, this time copying language from
my own review of Kallisti. (With these data points coupled with his
history of public insecurity about his language skills on sci.lang newsgroups,
I have to imagine that his list of plagiarisms would have to match the one
Gray presents in Lanark's epilogue.) And then he tried to tap into
my sense of shame over the fate of Ready, Okay!... except that I don't
have one. I mean, R,O! was a great experience. The critical consensus
was positive, I made a ton of money, and I received many kind messages about
it... in fact, they still trickle in surprisingly frequently. So what's not
It's true that the book didn't locate my soulmate. But that's not all bad,
because it taught me an interesting lesson. I had thought that anyone who
liked R,O! would naturally have a lot in common with me; as it turned
out, many of the girls who wrote in to say that it was their favorite book
led lives that I found unrecognizable. I deeply appreciated all of their
messages, but still, they were so alien to me. Moral: you never know who
your fans are going to be! It's a bit of a different mindset working on a
project knowing that you're writing for random people rather than to your
own personal diaspora.
And yes, it's true that the office politics at the publisher were a downer.
That was an undeniable negative. And more negative still was that achieving
even a small measure of fame brought the creeps out of the woodwork. But
whatever. That's life. Things are much harder than in the afterworld.
Though Lanark might disagree.
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