Poor Things

15/06/2024

       Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things is an impish, post-modern Frankenstein, a story that could be viewed as the sexual fever dream of a middle-aged male novelist, or a clever account of a woman’s bourgeoning mind and body under the often useless tutelage of various men: the brilliant scientist and medical man Godwin Baxter, his mediocre understudy, Archibald McCandless and the lascivious but increasingly lost lawyer Duncan Wedderburn. Much of the novel is narrated by McCandless who relates episodes in his spouse Bella Baxter’s life, but then the narrative perspective shifts as Bella’s take on the story is quite different, and regards her husband’s account as not just fictitious but fiction of a specific type - made up of tired tropes taken from Gothic and Romantic literature. If we are to assume the novel is a work of scribbled-down desire by Gray, we must also accept that it is a critique of such a claim without quite saying that Gray has proved his innocence. 

   After all, what are we to make of a novel that predicates its plot on a young, pregnant woman’s successful suicide, her belated but not hopeless rescue by Godwin, and her consequent resurrection as Bella Baxter — when Godwin takes the brain of the baby he saves and puts the child’s brain into the adult body of this woman he brings back to life? If feminism in the seventies made much of the biblical myth that Eve was a product of Adam, that God made Eve with one of Adam’s ribs, leading to the feminist magazine Spare Rib which wanted to show women as more than just a subsidiary of the man, then here we have Gray proposing that a male scientist can bring back to life one woman with the aid of her just born baby. It is quite literally his brainchild. For thousands of years, women may have been perceived to lack much power in the world, one they did possess was exclusive rights to child-bearing. Here Gray proposes that they don’t anymore as the great Godwin Baxter becomes the person capable of giving birth to a woman not out of his womb, of course, but out of his laboratory. 

     Messing with science isn’t something alien to Scotland in fact or fiction. More than a century before Poor Things, we had Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and, four years after Gray’s novel, researchers at the Roslin Institute on the outskirts of Edinburgh produced the first mammal cloned from an adult cell: Dolly the Sheep. But while Stevenson was keen to examine split personality, and Edinburgh University was researching genetically modified livestock, what was Gray’s excuse to mess with science in fictional form? Perhaps to say if we are going to play God, then best to do so with modesty and kindness, and for the purposes of curiosity — which might not kill the cat but can do strange things to rabbits. Early in the book, Godwin has fiddled with the sex of two lagomorphs, leaving one with male genitals and female nipples; the other with female genitalia and hardly any nipples at all. Godwin looks a bit dejected by the outcome and decides he will convert them back to their original state the following day. McCandless is astounded and wonders what other miracles Godwin could perform. “O, I could replace the diseased hearts of the rich with the healthy hearts of poorer folk, and make a lot of money, But I have all the money I need and it would be unkind to lead millionaires into such temptation.” 

     We might wonder what Godwin would make of all the temptations millionaires have been led into in the 21st century where medical science has collided with cosmetics: where money meets insecurity and the wealthy hold onto their looks for grim life and with the help of surgeons often less scrupulous than Godwin Baxter. And of course not just the rich, though the relatively poor might have to settle for a little augmentative work of the lips or a bit of breast enlargement. It is reaching the point where he who is without surgery cast the first stone. But while we needn’t get too caught up in the contemporary game of augmentative one-upmanship, we can do worse than go to Poor Things to get a handle on what a well-balanced account of life might look like. Gray starts with an intolerable conceit (a man fiddling around with a woman’s body and a baby’s brain) but he does so all the better to pack the book with numerous insights, observations and realisations. In a strange way, the writer is a moral reformer, someone who wants the world to be a better place but whose literary ingenuity and wry humour won’t quite allow us to take the homilies straight. 

     To understand Gray is to understand his sentence structure, to comprehend how he manages to allow a position to become evident, but not before it has been put through the mill of qualification and irony. Here are three examples. “…the wholly-est bit of god is movement, because it keeps stirring things to make new ones. Movement turns dead dogs into maggots and daisies, and flour, butter sugar an egg and a tablespoonful of milk into Abernethy biscuits, and spermatozoa and ovaries into fishy little plants growing baby ward if we take no care to stop them….” “Prosperous parents tell their children that nobody should lie, steal or kill, and that idleness and gambling are vices. They then send them to schools where they suffer if they do not disguise their thoughts and feelings and are taught to admire killers and stealers like Achilles and Ulysses, William the Conqueror and Henry the Eighth.” This of course “prepares them for life in a land where rich people use acts of parliament to deprive the poor of homes and livelihoods, where unearned incomes are increased by stock exchange gambling, where those who own most property work least…” Whether coming from Godwin, Bella or someone Bella meets on a cruise, Harry Astley, the tone and purpose can seem similar, even if Godwin offers it as wisdom, Bella as naivety, and Astley as cynicism.

      Politically, Gray probably isn’t too far removed from someone like Robert Tressell, whose very important book, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, came out in the early years of the 20th century and proved vital to the trade union movement. “Generations of workers have taken the book to their hearts and it is one of the most frequently loaned books of all time.” (Trade Union Congress) When Tressell says that a boss would take someone on as an apprentice for less than a wage (the apprentices would pay the boss), then claim when they were fully trained up there wasn’t enough work to employ them properly, Tressell says, “still, if the Man wished he might stay on until he secured a ‘better’ position’ and, as a matter of generosity, although he did not really need the Man’s services, he would pay him ten shillings per week!” After exploiting the apprentice for years, the boss insists on also getting a worker on the cheap. Gray wouldn’t be unsympathetic to Tressell’s dismay but he would be inclined to couch it differently. While Tressell uses scare quotes and an exclamation mark all the better to make the point clear, Gray is more likely to offer a similar one obliquely. 

      It is the difference between categorical and indeterminate irony. When Gray through Baxter says “the public hospitals are places where doctors learn how to get money off the rich by practising on the poor. That is why poor people dread and hate them, and why those with a good income are operated upon privately, or in their own homes”, we see far greater indetermination. Gray is making a point but deliberately hyperbolising it, while Tressell is stating clearly an injustice based on unequivocal fact. As Tressell says in the preface: “I have invented nothing. There are no scenes or incidents in the story that I have not either witnessed myself or had conclusive evidence of.” Gray may predicate his book on what he claims is an account of a doctor who died in 1911 and tells the reader that while it might seem like ‘grotesque fiction’, it isn’t. But this isn’t Gray proclaiming authenticity, but the opposite — that we are in a metafictional world where we should be wary of taking any claims straight and would be better attending to the layers of irony. If metafiction asks us to be aware of the self-conscious, self-reflexive and inter-textual nature of a work, that doesn’t mean a serious point isn't being, it just might not be made with a serious tone.

     What is central to Gray’s importance as a writer (not just in Poor Things but in LanarkUnlikely StoriesMostlyThe Fall of Kelvin Walker and others), is that he arrives at the socio-politically assertive having passed through the movements that a book like The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist precedes or eschews: modernism; Dadaism, surrealism, kitchen sink realism, post-modernism. He wants exactly what Tressell wants as an individual but cannot quite express it in the same way fictionally. He might say in a comment piece that the Conservative Winston Churchill, who might be known for his war effort rather than his social purpose, “…passed every socialist measure that had formerly been resisted as wicked or impractical. Every industry was brought under government control, deals were struck with the Union, profits were frozen, wages fixed, rationing imposed and Labour leaders joined the cabinet.” (Guardian)  But this is a different formulation than we would find in his fiction, where Bella’s aspiring working-class mum “was selfish and hard-working, and taught me how useless these virtues are when separated from courage and intelligence. She felt positively wicked when not washing or darning clothes, scrubbing floors, beating carpets or making a gallon of soup out of scraps a butcher could not sell for cat food.” 

      Yet on what could have been a story about class, Gray grafts onto it not just layers of irony but layers of narrative too, as if this isn’t just about a woman who finds herself married into higher social echelons, and is so unhappy she tries to take her life, it is also about one man who uses medical science to bring her back to life so that she possesses a child’s innocence and a woman’s capacity for carnality, another man who takes advantage of this as they travel Europe, and a third who cooks up the story at a temperature that suits his needs but doesn’t attend to its truths. It isn’t just that McCandless offers it up with Gothic and Romantic cliches intact; he also wants it to be his account, no matter if we will find later that it clashes completely with Bella’s. She takes over when she becomes a grown mind in a grown body and can thus be the emancipated figure she could never have been either under her militaristic first husband when she tries to take her life, or even the benign Godwin — who after all had to work as best he could with a woman’s corpse and a baby’s brain. Least of all does she need her hapless and hopeless hubby making up things as some kind of journal of record. 

      By the end of the book, with its constantly revised narrative perspectives, its faux history mingling with undeniable facts — offered at the end of the book in a section called Notes Critical and Historical — Gray has produced indeed a post-modern Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s book may not be a straightforward account as it offers events from different points of view, but Gray positively provokes the reader with the intricately self-reflexive, drawing on his own art that illustrates the book, his biography and Glasgow as a city both realistically delineated and capable of fantastic re-imagination. It is a beast of sorts, as though trying to find in the novel a literary form as provocative as the character Godwin Baxter brings into scientific existence. 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Poor Things

Alasdair Gray's Poor Things is an impish, post-modern Frankenstein, a story that could be viewed as the sexual fever dream of a middle-aged male novelist, or a clever account of a woman's bourgeoning mind and body under the often useless tutelage of various men: the brilliant scientist and medical man Godwin Baxter, his mediocre understudy, Archibald McCandless and the lascivious but increasingly lost lawyer Duncan Wedderburn. Much of the novel is narrated by McCandless who relates episodes in his spouse Bella Baxter's life, but then the narrative perspective shifts as Bella's take on the story is quite different, and regards her husband's account as not just fictitious but fiction of a specific type - made up of tired tropes taken from Gothic and Romantic literature. If we are to assume the novel is a work of scribbled-down desire by Gray, we must also accept that it is a critique of such a claim without quite saying that Gray has proved his innocence.

After all, what are we to make of a novel that predicates its plot on a young, pregnant woman's successful suicide, her belated but not hopeless rescue by Godwin, and her consequent resurrection as Bella Baxter when Godwin takes the brain of the baby he saves and puts the child's brain into the adult body of this woman he brings back to life? If feminism in the seventies made much of the biblical myth that Eve was a product of Adam, that God made Eve with one of Adam's ribs, leading to the feminist magazine Spare Rib which wanted to show women as more than just a subsidiary of the man, then here we have Gray proposing that a male scientist can bring back to life one woman with the aid of her just born baby. It is quite literally his brainchild. For thousands of years, women may have been perceived to lack much power in the world, one they did possess was exclusive rights to child-bearing. Here Gray proposes that they don't anymore as the great Godwin Baxter becomes the person capable of giving birth to a woman not out of his womb, of course, but out of his laboratory.

Messing with science isn't something alien to Scotland in fact or fiction. More than a century before Poor Things, we had Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and, four years after Gray's novel, researchers at the Roslin Institute on the outskirts of Edinburgh produced the first mammal cloned from an adult cell: Dolly the Sheep. But while Stevenson was keen to examine split personality, and Edinburgh University was researching genetically modified livestock, what was Gray's excuse to mess with science in fictional form? Perhaps to say if we are going to play God, then best to do so with modesty and kindness, and for the purposes of curiosity which might not kill the cat but can do strange things to rabbits. Early in the book, Godwin has fiddled with the sex of two lagomorphs, leaving one with male genitals and female nipples; the other with female genitalia and hardly any nipples at all. Godwin looks a bit dejected by the outcome and decides he will convert them back to their original state the following day. McCandless is astounded and wonders what other miracles Godwin could perform. "O, I could replace the diseased hearts of the rich with the healthy hearts of poorer folk, and make a lot of money, But I have all the money I need and it would be unkind to lead millionaires into such temptation."

We might wonder what Godwin would make of all the temptations millionaires have been led into in the 21st century where medical science has collided with cosmetics: where money meets insecurity and the wealthy hold onto their looks for grim life and with the help of surgeons often less scrupulous than Godwin Baxter. And of course not just the rich, though the relatively poor might have to settle for a little augmentative work of the lips or a bit of breast enlargement. It is reaching the point where he who is without surgery cast the first stone. But while we needn't get too caught up in the contemporary game of augmentative one-upmanship, we can do worse than go to Poor Things to get a handle on what a well-balanced account of life might look like. Gray starts with an intolerable conceit (a man fiddling around with a woman's body and a baby's brain) but he does so all the better to pack the book with numerous insights, observations and realisations. In a strange way, the writer is a moral reformer, someone who wants the world to be a better place but whose literary ingenuity and wry humour won't quite allow us to take the homilies straight.

To understand Gray is to understand his sentence structure, to comprehend how he manages to allow a position to become evident, but not before it has been put through the mill of qualification and irony. Here are three examples. "...the wholly-est bit of god is movement, because it keeps stirring things to make new ones. Movement turns dead dogs into maggots and daisies, and flour, butter sugar an egg and a tablespoonful of milk into Abernethy biscuits, and spermatozoa and ovaries into fishy little plants growing baby ward if we take no care to stop them...." "Prosperous parents tell their children that nobody should lie, steal or kill, and that idleness and gambling are vices. They then send them to schools where they suffer if they do not disguise their thoughts and feelings and are taught to admire killers and stealers like Achilles and Ulysses, William the Conqueror and Henry the Eighth." This of course "prepares them for life in a land where rich people use acts of parliament to deprive the poor of homes and livelihoods, where unearned incomes are increased by stock exchange gambling, where those who own most property work least..." Whether coming from Godwin, Bella or someone Bella meets on a cruise, Harry Astley, the tone and purpose can seem similar, even if Godwin offers it as wisdom, Bella as naivety, and Astley as cynicism.

Politically, Gray probably isn't too far removed from someone like Robert Tressell, whose very important book, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, came out in the early years of the 20th century and proved vital to the trade union movement. "Generations of workers have taken the book to their hearts and it is one of the most frequently loaned books of all time." (Trade Union Congress) When Tressell says that a boss would take someone on as an apprentice for less than a wage (the apprentices would pay the boss), then claim when they were fully trained up there wasn't enough work to employ them properly, Tressell says, "still, if the Man wished he might stay on until he secured a 'better' position' and, as a matter of generosity, although he did not really need the Man's services, he would pay him ten shillings per week!" After exploiting the apprentice for years, the boss insists on also getting a worker on the cheap. Gray wouldn't be unsympathetic to Tressell's dismay but he would be inclined to couch it differently. While Tressell uses scare quotes and an exclamation mark all the better to make the point clear, Gray is more likely to offer a similar one obliquely.

It is the difference between categorical and indeterminate irony. When Gray through Baxter says "the public hospitals are places where doctors learn how to get money off the rich by practising on the poor. That is why poor people dread and hate them, and why those with a good income are operated upon privately, or in their own homes", we see far greater indetermination. Gray is making a point but deliberately hyperbolising it, while Tressell is stating clearly an injustice based on unequivocal fact. As Tressell says in the preface: "I have invented nothing. There are no scenes or incidents in the story that I have not either witnessed myself or had conclusive evidence of." Gray may predicate his book on what he claims is an account of a doctor who died in 1911 and tells the reader that while it might seem like 'grotesque fiction', it isn't. But this isn't Gray proclaiming authenticity, but the opposite that we are in a metafictional world where we should be wary of taking any claims straight and would be better attending to the layers of irony. If metafiction asks us to be aware of the self-conscious, self-reflexive and inter-textual nature of a work, that doesn't mean a serious point isn't being, it just might not be made with a serious tone.

What is central to Gray's importance as a writer (not just in Poor Things but in Lanark, Unlikely Stories, Mostly, The Fall of Kelvin Walker and others), is that he arrives at the socio-politically assertive having passed through the movements that a book like The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist precedes or eschews: modernism; Dadaism, surrealism, kitchen sink realism, post-modernism. He wants exactly what Tressell wants as an individual but cannot quite express it in the same way fictionally. He might say in a comment piece that the Conservative Winston Churchill, who might be known for his war effort rather than his social purpose, "...passed every socialist measure that had formerly been resisted as wicked or impractical. Every industry was brought under government control, deals were struck with the Union, profits were frozen, wages fixed, rationing imposed and Labour leaders joined the cabinet." (Guardian) But this is a different formulation than we would find in his fiction, where Bella's aspiring working-class mum "was selfish and hard-working, and taught me how useless these virtues are when separated from courage and intelligence. She felt positively wicked when not washing or darning clothes, scrubbing floors, beating carpets or making a gallon of soup out of scraps a butcher could not sell for cat food."

Yet on what could have been a story about class, Gray grafts onto it not just layers of irony but layers of narrative too, as if this isn't just about a woman who finds herself married into higher social echelons, and is so unhappy she tries to take her life, it is also about one man who uses medical science to bring her back to life so that she possesses a child's innocence and a woman's capacity for carnality, another man who takes advantage of this as they travel Europe, and a third who cooks up the story at a temperature that suits his needs but doesn't attend to its truths. It isn't just that McCandless offers it up with Gothic and Romantic cliches intact; he also wants it to be his account, no matter if we will find later that it clashes completely with Bella's. She takes over when she becomes a grown mind in a grown body and can thus be the emancipated figure she could never have been either under her militaristic first husband when she tries to take her life, or even the benign Godwin who after all had to work as best he could with a woman's corpse and a baby's brain. Least of all does she need her hapless and hopeless hubby making up things as some kind of journal of record.

By the end of the book, with its constantly revised narrative perspectives, its faux history mingling with undeniable facts offered at the end of the book in a section called Notes Critical and Historical Gray has produced indeed a post-modern Frankenstein. Mary Shelley's book may not be a straightforward account as it offers events from different points of view, but Gray positively provokes the reader with the intricately self-reflexive, drawing on his own art that illustrates the book, his biography and Glasgow as a city both realistically delineated and capable of fantastic re-imagination. It is a beast of sorts, as though trying to find in the novel a literary form as provocative as the character Godwin Baxter brings into scientific existence.


© Tony McKibbin