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. Too meta.

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 the protagonist.

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 to like?

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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