Scottish Literature into the Twenty-First Century
Stuart Kelly's Review of 2005
It's hard, now, to remember the last years of the 20th century; the millennium bug, the sense of New Labour as a New Start, and the numerous literary second-guesses at what the future might bring. The late 1980s and early 1990s were heralded as yet another of those Scottish Renaissances we seem to be having with regular monotony: so how does the beginning of the 21st century shape up? The following books are chosen, as Jane Austen once described herself, by a "partial, prejudiced and ignorant Historian". Of course, I haven't read every Scottish book in the last six years, of course, I have personal favourites and idiosyncratic blind-spots (I'm still waiting for anyone who can explain the appeal of Welsh's "Porno" to me), and, of course, this personal compilation will look as dated and curious as any other such endeavour in the cold light of the actual future – it's always humbling to recollect that "Moby-Dick" sold fewer copies and received less critical attention than Harrison Ainsworth's "Windsor Castle" in its day. All I'd claim for this little foray is that I thoroughly enjoyed all the books, and would think less of anyone who disagreed.
John Aberdein's Amande's Bed (Thirsty Books) is a remarkable debut, set in Aberdeen during 1956, the year of the invasion of Hungary by the USSR. It's a bold, presumptuous and demanding book, written in a cacophony of tones, voices, dialects and timbres, including an unabashed Doric. What strikes me most is that I can't tell 'the story' because it's a quixotically democratic book; everyone has their secrets, their hopes, their adventures and their imminent changes. If your idea of committed left-wing fiction begins and ends with social realism, then Aberdein's gloriously knotty, occasionally surreal novel will open your eyes.
Equally unsettling is Andrew Crumey's Mobius Dick (Picador). Three different strands – an amnesiac in hospital, tortured by a psychiatrist and a creative writing tutor – chapters from novels strangely reminiscent of the work of Thomas Mann, including major sections from a version of "The Magic Mountain" where cat-famous quantum theorist Erwin Schrodinger is recuperating – and a physicist whose mobile phone is received odd messages and whose protégé may be breaking down the discretion of quantum universes – well. That should be enough. Often described as 'cerebral', 'postmodern' and 'European', there are another three adjectives that describe Crumey's elegant fictions: 'hilarious', 'poignant', 'angry'.
If there were a laureate for anger, it should go to Lucy Ellmann, whose Dot in the Universe (Bloomsbury) does for reincarnation what Crumey does for quantum-theory: use it to tell an astonishing, enlightening story. Dot is just that, a speck of insignificance in a malign universe. As she lies, thieves, dies, is reborn, is sent back, is briefly an opossum and eventually confronts her childhood, Ellmann is not so much a machine-gunner, but a sniper of satire. This is to chic-lit what Hitchock's The Birds is to Bill Oddie. After this novel, you will never flush the toilet unselfconsciously again, or mow the lawn, or watch "Changing Rooms".
A runner up in the 2002 Arts Council Book of the Year, Peter Burnett's The Machine Doctor was a polyphonic riot: call centre workers, standing stones, drugged up neds and lunched-out execs. His subsequent novel Odium (Thirsty Books) is a starker, sadder and altogether more memorable affair. The central character, a French GP called Burnetto, is loveless, disillusioned and depressive; his radical solution is to pursue his obsession with Napoleon through a trip to Egypt. It might appear as a gallery of grotesques, but on closer scrutiny, each one is hideously life-like: it's as if we had to endure seeing every pore, follicle and cell of our own faces. The snatched tendernesses, against a backdrop of unremitting viciousness, makes this a sublime pavane of a book.
Susie Maguire's Furthermore (Polygon) proves that the short story is still a valid and varied form. She effortlessly inhabits her characters, and can render even a quirk as essential to the character. The abiding theme of the collection is the proximity and distance of love, the mutual misunderstandings and deliberate occlusions that intimacy involves. It's like Roland Barthes's A Lover's Discourse brought to flesh and blood; and yet has space for her perpetually endearing Marina McLoughlin, who in a just world would be presenting a TV show by now.
The surface of James Robertson's Joseph Knight (Fourth Estate) might appear like a conventional historical novel, dealing with an extraordinary 18th century case, where the eponymous slave demanded his freedom from the Haill Fifteen of Scottish jurisprudence. But throughout this eloquent book, dark parallels emerge to the contemporary world, not least in the troubling absence of Knight's own voice. Robertson seems aware that the legacy of Walter Scott is not shortbread tins, but an anxious sense of history's buried and resurgent influences; an almost modernist preoccupation with the margins and the silenced, and a fiery determination that the past is a poltergeist that won't settle.
Ali Smith's The Accidental (Hamish Hamilton) is a novel about intoxication, marrying the characters intrigues and obsessions with a mysterious woman who arrives out of the blue with a language that is rich, disorientating and sly. To use W H Auden's lines, this is a world where "The Exceptional is always usual, / and the Usual exceptional." Smith writes like a home-grown Angela Carter, crafting fairy-tales with oblique morals and redeeming the overwhelming ordinariness of the quotidian.
Many writers attempt to imitate James Joyce. Few learn enough from him to go their own way, independently; but such as author is Todd McEwen, whose heartbreaking fourth novel, Who Sleeps with Katz (Granta), begins with a very Joycean premise. MacK, a radio presenter, has cancer, and walks across New York to tell his oldest friend, and to try and figure out which of the cigarettes he smoked has bequeathed this day of epiphanies. It's a whispery, sad, occasionally explosive novel, full of joie-de-vivre and gentlemanliness in the face of a grey, and darkening, existence. It's chipper and sinister, erotic and melancholy, all at once.
Peter Manson's ADJUNCT: AN UNDIGEST (Edinburgh Review) is prose, or poetry, or proesy, or heresy, or simply itself. It's a hyperactive Finnegans Wake, an anthology of eavesdroppings, a critique of contemporary culture and a celebration of its unintended linguistic felicities. I'm sure, years later, there will still be arguments to be had on whether it was Informationist, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, a collidierscope, an Ariandnean ball of wool that leads out of the labyrinth and up the garden path, or just one insane attempt to accurately reflect Babel itself. Plus fart jokes.
Finally, A L Kennedy's Paradise (Jonathan Cape). I heard Kennedy read from this novel when it was a work in progress, and suddenly all the layers of criticism I'd read (how painful, how tortured, how wistful her work is) fell away. Her first collection, Night Geometry And The Garscadden Train (Polygon) was so viscously humorous, it was delightful to read her deploying all those black comic gifts to Scotland's national psychosis: the drink. It's not funny peculiar and it's not funny ha-ha, but it is might as well laugh funny. Or should that be "in the grand tradition of Samuel Beckett"?
Does anything connect these books? Well, apart from the ambition, linguistic adeptness, attention to detail and emotional maturity, no. It may well be that we are no longer in another Renaissance, but something far more exciting: an age of exploration.
Books featured in this article
- Add to BasketThe Accidental - - Paperback
'The Accidental' pans in on the Norfolk holiday home of the Smart family one hot summer. There, a beguiling stranger called Amber appears at the door bearing all sorts of unexpected gifts, trampling over family boundaries and sending each of the Smarts scurrying from the dark into the light.
- Add to BasketAmande's Bed - - Paperback
It is 1956 and post-war Scotland is reeling - with sex, Americans, storms, the news from Budapest and fish. Young Peem is hankering, trying to find his legs in that reel - what with Miss Florence, his mother, Haze, Bridget Amande, Dinah, plus the girls in
- Add to BasketDot In The Universe - - Paperback
Without the slightest understanding of life or death, Dot decides to end it all. She fails spectacularly - and thus embarks on an adventure within our puny universe that is fierce and poignant, poetic and terrifying, and also funny.
- Add to BasketJoseph Knight - - Paperback
Exiled to Jamaica in 1746, Sir John Wedderburn made a fortune, returning to Scotland with Joseph Knight, a black slave. Now, in 1802, Sir John is settling his estate, and wants to find his former slave. Can old wounds that once touched the heart of Scottish law ever heal?
- Add to BasketMobius Dick - - Paperback
A lost lover resurfaces in the life of physicist John Ringer when he receives a mysterious text message. But does it really come from the woman he knew?
- Add to BasketNight Geometry And The Garscadden Trains - - Paperback
The heroes and heroines of this, A.L. Kennedy's first collection of stories, are small people. Often alone and sometimes lonely, her characters ponder the mysteries of sex and death - and the ability of public transport to affect our lives.
- Add to BasketParadise - - Paperback
From the north-east of Scotland to Dublin, from London to Montreal, to Budapest and onwards, Hannah Luckraft travels beyond her limits, beyond herself, in search of the ultimate altered state: the one where she can be happy - her paradise.
- Add to BasketPorno - - Paperback
In the fag-end of his youth, Simon 'Sick Boy' Williamson is back in his native Edinburgh to realise his dream of making a pornographic movie. 'Porno' is the sequel to 'Trainspotting'.