There is plenty in Alasdair Gray's work that might mark him out as a postmodern author interested in making the text self-reflexive and well aware of its own capacity to be other than what it is, but at the same time there is an equally determined need to make categorical claims. Now one of the elements that distinguish postmodern literature is of course the intrusive narrator, the narrative figure that can call attention to the authoring of the text, or for that matter the reading of it. To help us here we might think of theorist Gerard Genette's differentiation between histoire, recit and narration. Histoire is the story being told, recit the nature and ordering of its telling, and narration, "which concerns", in Terry Eagleton's words, "the act of narrating itself". (Literary Theory) Literature usually works with a story that is then told in the most appropriate manner according to the types of mystery the author wants to create. One might be well aware that the histoire could have been told differently, but we accept that the chosen recit is the best way of telling it. The chronological ordering of the story might be useless for a whodunit, since the murder would have been committed earlier in time than the detective who is trying to find out who is responsible for the deed. The recit, the formulating of the plot, will have to put this piece of information on hold, as the story will start with the detective aware of a dead body and then trying to find out who committed the crime. A rite of passage story on the other hand might have no problem starting with the boy's childhood and seeing him through till early adulthood. However, while the former plays with time, and the latter doesn't, neither quite plays with the reader, neither possesses a narrator calling into question the very tale, be it chronological or otherwise. Neither approach needs the presence of narration as we're choosing to define it through Genette.
One way of making sense of this narrational presence is to imagine how it would be usually eschewed in fiction that wants to focus on the invisibility of the text, and the invisibility of the reader. When Italo Calvino says: "You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a Winter's Night a Traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade," this is what we might call narrationally impertinent. Do we not know that we are reading a book by Calvino called If on a Winter's Night a Traveller? Equally, when Gray has a character saying in 'The Story of a Recluse', "Who is Manton Jamieson", rather than having the other character explain, Gray's narrator intrudes by invoking Robert Louis Stevenson (whom the story homages). "In answering the question I must describe the person who does so, for Stevenson, like nature and every good storyteller, creates nobody to inform and change someone else without giving them equal fullness of life." Here we have in each instance what Philip Stevick names 'New Fiction', a form that "permits itself a degree of latitude from the illusionist tradition greater than in any body of fiction since the beginning of the novel". Generally in earlier work, no matter the intrusiveness of the occasional exception like the oft-utilised Tristram Shandy, narration is subdued or invisibly incorporated. You might have the odd first person aside in a Henry James book making one aware of narration, or a novella like Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground where the narrator is constantly intruding on his own attempt at telling the tale, but in neither instance does the purpose reside in calling attention to the very process of reading.
Perhaps no writer goes further than Alasdair Gray in pursuing the narrationally impertinent, and one reason why is that with a few exceptions like Blake (whom Gray much admires), most writers are not at the same time visual artists. Where the cover of Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller offers the first half page of the book, Alasdair Gray's typographical intrusiveness calls attention not only to the narrator narrating, but also the designer designing the very book we have in our hands. In a number of the tales in Unlikely Stories, Mostly, Gray creates separate columns, radically different print fonts and sizes, sketches that illustrate a passage described or a point made. As Gray gives us the narrationally impertinent within the typographically intrusive we might wonder whether the work can hold together, whether it will fall apart under the weight of its own self-consciousness. The layout of 'Logopandocy' with its pro me and contra me list of qualities possessed by the central character, the listing of names and facts, the cramming of a small number of words in one triangular corner of the page and a passage replaced by asterixes, with the words "more excisions here by the tooth of the editorial rodent" in the middle of them, makes the story not so much a demanding read as a constantly interruptive one.
Yet at the start of the essay we noted Gray's need to make categorical claims, and there is at work in Gray's short fiction in Unlikely Stories, Mostly, and Lean Tales, as well as novels like Lanark and The Rise and Fall of Kelvin Walker, a twofold assertiveness that comes from Gray's prose style and what we can call his convictions. If Gray does insist on narration, strong narration that seems to intrude on the story and the plot, then at least this narrator contains an authority of his own. One feels in Gray's work this sense of conviction evident in prose that may be full of asides, but that the asides, add to the sense of conviction rather than undermine it. Interestingly Gray's friend and fellow writer James Kelman says of another novelist in the postmodern tradition, Salman Rushdie, that "in a literary context one of the limited ways of using the stereotype technique creatively is to turn a prejudice on its head: the 'stereotyped' character is then revealed as an ordinary human being with specific qualities thereby demanded. Here the author of The Satanic Verses seems to me to fail too often for comfort..." (Some Recent Attacks) It is as though, for Kelman, Rushdie buys too readily into the social system as a given, and for all the narrational intervention, the perspective is finally that of a work too happy with "a number of the stock characters and situations any politicized student of the English literary canon is well used to..." One sometimes finds in Rushdie's work that the narration is intrusive but not authoritative; that it is incapable of achieving a certain singularity of conviction.
Gray's work however is full of authoritative statements no matter the various forms of intrusiveness that could ostensibly undermine them. We are unlikely to come away from Portrait of a Playwright or Portrait of a Painter wondering where Gray stands. These are at first glance fictional works, but are based on actual people. Both Joan Ure and Alasdair Taylor are Scottish playwrights and artists respectively who struggled to get recognized for their work, and Gray's stories are accounts of their life and careers. Are they fictional? Some sources give Taylor's birth date as 1934; Gray says 1936. A factual error or creative license? Either way what counts is the conviction behind the prose, as if Gray chose not so much to write potted biographies of a playwright and painter whom he admired; more to capture the symptomatic problem of being creative in Scotland. When the narrator says in Portrait of a Painter, "Scotland, however, is a notorious low-investment area and pictorially speaking we have never recovered from the depression of the thirties", he does so to explain why it is a struggle for the Scottish artist. This is long before he introduces Alasdair Taylor as an example of that struggle, but here what might seem like authorial intrusion doesn't arrive at the facetious, but instead at the convictive. We don't need to know for example that in Rodge Glass's biography Alasdair Gray Glass explains that Gray spent four hours one day when ill writing a letter to Richard Holloway about the neglect of Taylor's work. It is there in the prose style, in the very story. When the narrator says, "Alasdair Taylor is a lyrical painter: a painter whose colour, like a musician's sound, makes sombre and radiant feelings without showing (as many painters do and all good writers must) details of the social life causing them", the conviction is evident. Where in many a writer's work the parenthesis can dilute the statement, in Gray's the apparent subordinate clauses often do the opposite. As the narrator says in 'Portrait of a Playwright': "Her plays handle the commonplace facts: that hard housework, factory work, office work are unavoidable but freedom is essential: that we could all have more freedom with a fairer sharing of powers, but are everywhere in chains because we live unfairly, our love twisted by exploitation and warfare, men oppressing women and other men with their greater economic strength, women exploiting men with their greater emotional insight."
It would seem for Gray that the postmodern needn't possess the dimension of despair Jean-Francois Lyotard (in 'Defining the Postmodern') proposes when saying of the post modern condition that "one can note a sort of decay in the confidence placed by the two last centuries on the idea of progress". Nor must it share Gerald Graff's claim that "in its exclusive literary sense, postmodernism may be defined as that movement within contemporary literature and criticism which calls into question the claims of literature and art to truth and human value." ('The Myth of the Postmodernist Breakthrough') Gray's fiction is constantly alluding to ameliorative possibilities, often contained by a wryly angry tone. "...indeed for those with low salaries and positions, unimaginative carefulness is a way of avoiding pain, in the short run. In the long run it makes us easy tools of people with high salaries and positions, and when they have no use of us they drop us in the shit. As in 1985 Britain." ('Portrait of a Playwright'). In an amusing brief sketch on those who would deny the importance of sex education in schools, 'Decision', the narrator notes that when she was young there was no talk of sex and much talk of children, as if the two were not interconnected. Consequently, she is most surprised that after she marries and decides to put off having children until she and her husband have a home of their own she finds herself pregnant. When the doctor asks what precautions did she take, she doesn answer him. Instead she thinks: "I don't take precautions when I decide to have a baby, why take precautions when I decide not to have a baby?" In 'The End of the Axletree', the character of the financial secretary notes: "There is no profit in feeding poor people, except on rare occasions when it will prevent a revolt." Whatever Gray's playfulness, it isn't hard to work out his socio-political position from his fiction - at the end of A Small Thistle, in large, bold capitals the story has Scottish Socialist Republic, with neutrality underneath. One wouldn't need to know that Gray had also written a pamphlet in 1992 called Why Scots Should Rule Scotland to comprehend his political stance.
However, the purpose of this essay isn't simply to show the intellectually autobiographical behind the fictional. It is instead to propose that though Gray easily fits into the category of postmodern meta-fictionist as he draws our attention to the text, he does not seem to share an interest in what fellow meta-fictionist John Barth has called 'The Literature of Exhaustion', even though he may fit aptly into what Barth thinks the great modern artist must do: "manage nonetheless to speak eloquently and memorably to our still human hearts and conditions". In Beckett and Borges, Barth recognizes minimalism at work, but Gray is a maximalist, an expansive writer who isn't exhausted but frustrated. Beckett and Borges might in different ways have seemed like marginal writers (Borges writing from Argentina, Beckett from Ireland), both using a language that was a language within a language (Argentinean Spanish, Irish English), and both adopting another language as their own - Borges' fondness for English, Beckett's later writing in French. But neither was writing from the sort of frustration evident in writers who feels themselves colonized both culturally and linguistically.
Now Alasdair Gray is not Kelman, for whom this cultural and linguistic frustration brilliantly manifests itself in demotic speech, demonic thoughts and cramped lives. If Kelman assumes the position of a constantly enquiring figure accumulating notes from underground, Gray's approach is to create a casually aristocratic belief in Scottish assertiveness, one that needs to escape any feelings of inferiority and cultural invisibility. As a character says in Lanark: "Then think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he's already visited them for the first time in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn't been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively. What is Glasgow to most of us?" There is in such a statement not a literature of exhaustion but a culture of frustration, as if one's voice hasn't run out of possibilities, but instead been subtly gagged. When Barth says "for whatever its symptomatic worth, that Joyce was virtually blind, Borges is literally so, and Beckett has become virtually mute musewise, having progressed from marvellously constructed English sentences through terser and terser French ones to the un-syntactical unpunctuated prose of Comment C'est and 'ultimately' to wordless mimes", this is exhaustion at work not frustration as we're choosing to define it. Gray may have a space near the end of Lanark for an Index of Plagiarisms, but this is consistent with a tone that acknowledges debt without at all assuming bankruptcy.
If Gray is postmodern, as we'll happily admit, then nevertheless he happens to be so in a manner that has little to do with Lyotard and Graff's comments, nor those of Barth's. If instead we can claim that Gray's is a literature of frustration, what is so interesting about it is that the work nevertheless assumes an ebullience of tone and manner assumes a notion of authority without taking that authority for granted. Many of Gray's sentences have the air of aphorism, whether coming out of the mouth of a character or offered as narrational asides. In 'Prometheus' we have: "...the Athenians were like our educated bourgeois of western Europe and other countries, yet feel superior to the equivalent class in Russia, because we applaud writers who tell us we are corrupt." In the first person monologue The Grumbler, the narrator talks of his improved and increased sex life. "Shortly after, within the space of a week, I had an enjoyable time in bed with four different women, two of whom I had known for years and who had never shown the slightest interest in me. I don't know why this suddenly happened. I had not become a local celebrity. My reputation in the trade meant nothing to these women, and as for money, nobody ever got money out of me." In 'The Cause of Some Recent Changes', the narrator says, "In spite of the project's successful beginning I expected it to fail through lack of support as the magazine, the debating society and the outing to Linlithgow had failed, so I was surprised to find after three months that enthusiasm was increasing." This is hardly the narrative stuttering one might invoke as Gilles Deleuze talks of it. Speaking of Kafka and Beckett in 'The Exhausted', Deleuze says, "what they do...is invent a minor use of a major language within which they express themselves entirely..." While this minor use is relevant to Kelman, it seems Gray has chosen to move not towards a stuttering 'minorization', but instead a sort of High Scots, a voice of immense confidence rather than debilitation. When Gray interestingly says at the end of Lean Tales "these two at first were indifferent to each other's work. Gray was writing a novel which used the devices of fantasy to overlook the facts which were essential to Kelman's prose", one could also add that where Gray would write assertively, Kelman would write tentatively.
Yet out of these polar positions have come perhaps Scotland's two most important post-war writers, and of course an abiding friendship. It is as if between them they have tried to take on the high and the low, to find linguistic form to explore the power-struggle in content. Where Kelman would be inclined to write about social injustice from the position of a bedsit (in 'Not Not While the Giro' for example), Gray will create a vast edifice as in 'The End of the Axletree' where class hierarchies take literal form. Gray offers us a picture of the structure next to the first page of the story, and later informs us through the President that: "...the axletree is full of comfortable, well-meaning people who expect to rise to a higher position before they die and who mean to pass on their advantages to their children. They can only do this in a structure which keeps getting larger." If finally Kelman's work is very much consistent with a literature of frustration, Gray's, whilst reflecting this frustration, also segues into a literature of exasperation. Frustration seems much closer to an individualising mode where the self is constantly hindered, where exasperation appears more grandiose and demanding. When Gray says in 'Portrait of a Painter' that "the administrators are usually strangers to the cities where they work and are often English, because there are more highly qualified English than Scots looking for work in modern Britain", he does so with a tone of mild exasperation at the way things are, more than with the sort of anger and immediate frustration Kelman often invokes.
If in 'The Myth of the Postmodernist Breakthrough', Graff sees the postmodern questioning the claims of literature in relation to truth and human value, Gray's postmodern aesthetic manages to ask questions that are posed within the context of the facetious, but are underpinned by value judgements that are always suggestive and contentious. It isn't that Gray doesn't believe in what he is saying, he would just be unlikely to assume that everybody would share the judgement made. When in a classic 19thcentury novel, like War and Peace, Tolstoy talks of Napoleon running "over the whole of this strange Russian campaign, in which not one battle had been won, and which not a flag, or cannon, or army corps, had been captured in two months...a terrible feeling like a nightmare took possession of him", there is nothing in the tone to truck or invoke contradiction. Yet when Gray says in 'The Story of a Recluse', for example, "we can become addicts of almost any activity prolonged past the healthy limit. People have drunk themselves to death on water, the anorexic finds hunger intoxicating, some of the worst treated learn to welcome pain," it is as though part of Gray's postmodern aesthetic is to be simultaneously assertive while at the same time provocative. He does not assume the claims he makes are objective, but this doesn't mean they are lightly made either. Partly what makes Gray so fascinating is that he will offer strong statements with an authoritative voice but within the context of a marginalised socio-political position. In 'The Start of the Axletree' the narrator says, "conquest is not a difficult thing - most countries have a spell of it - but an empire is only kept by careful organization and we were good at that. We taxed the defeated people with the help of their traditional rulers, who wielded more power with our support than they could without, but the empire was mainly held by our talent for large-scale building." Where many a writer working out of a culturally oppressed position would offer such a perspective from below, from the sense of frustrated limitation, and the sort of postmodern writer invoked by Graff with a facetious awareness of the book being a book, Gray manages to combine the notion of a minority literature within the context of a postmodern self-reflexivity. What this gives to Gray's stories and also his novels, without trying to homogenise them, is an interesting combination of a literature of frustration with the tone of authority which is not at the same time on the side of power. When a character near the end of Lanark says, "...we can only help people by giving less than we take away from them. We enlarge the oasis by increasing the desert. That is the science of housekeeping. Some call it economics", it resembles an earlier passage in tone and point. "People in Scotland have a queer idea of the arts. They think you can be an artist in your spare time, though nobody expects you to be a spare-time dustman, engineer, lawyer or brain surgeon." In each instance there is the tone of common sense within the absurdity of the former and the fair assumption of the latter.
What is often so appealing about Gray is that his comments find the authority of tone in the commonness of his sense, not in elitist assumption. He may be 'postmodern' in undermining the meta-narratives Lyotard and others believe have given way under a postmodern condition, but this needn't result in an irrational perspective; more a return to common sense after seeing through the abuses and absurdities of power. It is a common sense tradition allied to national self-determination, as if taking off from what George Davie and others see as, according to Kelman in an essay in 'Edinburgh Review 84', values based on "forms of natural reason". Here, Kelman says, the forms possess "a belief in fundamental principles that are inherent in all people. These include the faculty of judgement which lies at the heart not only of reason, but of the will to freedom."
Gray's work then may, again, be postmodern but it does not possess what Lyotard would call the sorrowfulness of the postmodern: "So there is a sort of sorrow in the Zeitgeist. This can express itself by reactive or reactionary attitudes or by utopias, but never by a positive orientation, offering a new perspective." Gray's writing implies the opposite, evident in a comment he makes in Why Scots' 92, where he wishes for a country in which "Scots mainly live by making and growing and doing things for each other." This is common sense optimism, and smacks of powerful naivety rather than wilful sophistication. Gray's work may be as radical as any in its interest in the self-reflexive, but it equally seems to possess a dimension of a minor literature: the sense of literary and social hope coming from a small, often strangulated place. Gray's narrators may intrude, but they do so with an eye for the commonsensical more than the nonsensical: towards the rational and not the supposed irrationality often perceived to be central to the postmodern condition. His work is infused with hope rather than sorrow.
© Tony McKibbin