IN NOTES at the backs of Unlikely Stories, Mostly and 1982 Janine, Alasdair Gray acknowledges sources not only for brief moments and lines but for major themes and characters in both. In the former, "Both the 'Axletree' stories and 'Five Letters' are decorative expansions of what Kafka outlined perfectly in 'The City Coat of Arms' and 'The Great Wall of China' . . . The narrator without self-respect (of 1982 Janine) is from Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, C,eline's Journey to the End of Night, the first-person novels of Flann O'Brien and from Camus' The Fall."
The straightforward crediting in these notes isas purely exuberant as the books themselves, and it is this unqualified openness and warmth that American readers should find refreshing, for while Gray marks the traditions from which he comes, he is in no way bound by them. There is a complete lack of the tentative in his writing, a sureness that seems almost naive. It may be that Scotland stands to England as Canada does to the United States, free of those matters of literary propriety that can urge writers to be careful, properly pessimistic, tasteful. Gray, at least, stands free of them; he is none of these things, and these two books, though full of invention, read as if the prose were completely transparent. It is hard to describe them as beautifully written; they seem to sustain their power purely on the unmistakeable energy of their author.
1982 Janine is the first-person narrative of Jock McLeish, an insomniac and alcoholic who gets through the one night of the novel in a hotel outside of Glasgow by drinking and constructing elaborate pornographic fantasies. These fantasies, which include Janine and other women, are based on McLeish's imaginings of America. Jane Russell and a poster from the movie The Outlaw have been with McLeish since childhood, and the fantasies that constitute much in the first half of the book are comically anachronistic, puerile, and fraught with anxiety. They are mostly sadistic, bondage fantasies, complex and constantly frustrated. What frustrates them is both McLeish's desire to prolong their climaxes and the constant intrusion of memories from his life -- memories of parents, lovers, his ex-wife and friends. As the fantasies grow and change, the issue of frustration intensifies, and McLeish begins to recall elements of frustration in his own life and in the political and social life of Scotland and of the world at large, both in history and in the present.
After a climactic scene in the early morning hours, a scene in which fantasy, drink, drugs and the memory of reality clash, McLeish is freed from disorientation, and the story of his life is related in a linear and straightforward way. It is a far simpler and more conventional life than the fantasy life of the first half of the book might suggest. It's personal lesson is found in McLeish's early loss of Denny, his sweet and simple first love, who gave him warmth and sleep. It's social lesson is found in the figure of Hislop, a frustrated and violent school teacher, devastated by his part in the First World War, who madly yearns for a language that can soothe him:
"'I will give this pound note to the boy or girl who can repeat a single euphonious phrase. Come! Two hundred and forty pence, an eighth part of your father's weekly wage for three or four words which will flow into the ear and give peace to the heart. You know the kind of thing I want. Now folds the lily all her sweetness up. Blue, glossy green and velvet black. Like simmers into cleanness leaping.'"
THE LAST sentence is from "Peace," one of Rupert Brooke's 1914 sonnets, a series written out of complete naivet,e as to what the coming war would bring. Hislop wants a soothing that he cannot have and, like Jock McLeish in his fantasies, he takes his frustrations out in sadistic beatings of students who are unable to deliver the called-for euphonious phrase.
Gray's novel is full of such witty and wise inclusions as the Brooke reference, inclusions that for the most part point with irony at the state of Scotland and of the world beyond it. Finally, the thing that holds 1982 Janine together is its political intent, one that would argue quite optimistically for drastic and wholesale social change.
Political concern, though it is present in a veiled way, is less important to the success of Unlikely Stories, Mostly, a gathering of 14 fictions published by Gray between 1951 and the present. The book is a wonder of ingenuity, a varied and rich collection in which Gray's abilities as a visual artist and illustrator are placed not only beside but within the products of his fertile imagination as a writer. In "The Crank That Made the Revolution," a nutty piece of revisionist history dealing with the real cause of the Industrial Revolution, for example, careful drawings of "McMenamy's Improved Duck Tandem" propulsion device are an integral part of the story.
There are children's stories here, brief fables, stories that are guides to the reading of visual matter, a piece called "The Great Bear Cult" that could be a script for Monty Python, strange science fiction/fantasy pieces, stories like "The Comedy of the White Dog," which contains a unique mix of humor, myth, and painful anxiety, and three longer pieces, "The Star of the Axletree," "The End of the Axletree," and "Five Letters From an Eastern Empire," that are gorgeous in their fabulous detail and elaboration. They read like a world created by Escher or Bosch, and though they tend to swallow the reader in their magic, like the thrust of 1982 Janine, their lesson is social and political, their ironic and witty worlds cautionary.
In the middle of 1982 Janine there are pages in which Jock McLeish is fighting with drugs and alcohol, attempting to either die or come through and get free of his fantasies. In his delirium, he hears the voice of God, which enters in small print, pushing against the larger type of his ravings. Something God says is repeated on the first and last pages of Unlikely Stories, Mostly, complete with illustration and the words "Scotland 1984" beside it. God's statement is "Work as if you were in the early days of a better nation." It is the inherent optimism in that statement that perhaps best captures the strength of Alasdair Gray's fiction, its straightforwardness and exuberance.
George Braziller will republish Lanark, Gray's highly acclaimed first novel, in March 1985. We will then have the bulk of Alasdair Gray's work available in this country. We'll be better off for it.