James Kelman more than thirty-five years ago reckoned that "English literature is based on that relationship between writer and reader and the person in the middle is the character. "For instance, in the average novel written about a working class character, the assumption is that the character doesn't know as much as the writer and the reader, and often you'll get all those wee things such as dialect, for instance, in phonetics." (Edinburgh Review). A decade after this remark Kelman became the first Scot to win the Booker prize, with How Late it Was How Late, and twenty-five years later Douglas Stuart became the second. Kelman's Booker prize was met with much outrage and poor sales. Even one of the judges was unhappy: Rabbi Julia Neuberger complained that the book was not publicly accessible and threatened to resign if it won. Frankly, she said...it's crap. (Guardian) Simon Jenkins famously called it a work of literary vandalism. (Herald) On receiving the Saltire Award in 2012, Kelman made clear how poorly he was selling: "As a writer, last year I think I earned about 15,000. And that after being a writer for about 40 years." (Scotsman)
In contrast, Stuart's Shuggie Bain, about an alcoholic mother Agnes and her loving young son Shuggie, has already made a fortune, passing a million sales Stuart announced on his Twitter account. He also, after receiving the Booker, acknowledged his admiration for Kelman. "It changed everything in literature for me. Not only was it about working-class people; it was written in a broad Scots dialect. That's how people around me talked, but you rarely see that in literature, rarely see it celebrated. It was an affirming moment for me." (Culture Matters) He also writes very generously about Kelman and other Scottish work he admires, including Morvern Callar, Gentlemen of the West and Trainspotting in an essay for Literary Hub. But is Shuggie Bain a regressive step next to Kelman's work, and even Welsh's, and is this regression potentially part of its success yet vital to an aspect of its relative artistic failure?
Kelman made clear that central to his work was destroying that relationship between writer and reader, one that he saw was at the expense of character, and we might wonder, if for all Stuart's respect for Kelman, that his book hasn't recreated it. The book has standard English narration and usually phonetic dialogue. There could have been a technical justification for this if the book had been in the first person. Though the title character's family is working-class and living in parts of the city where unemployment is high, educational achievement limited and mores course, Shuggie's mother is a stickler for proper English - even if when drunk she will allow for a few choice words. It marks her out as a bit posh in the pit village where most of the book takes place, and near the end of the novel, when Shuggie and his alcoholic mother have moved to the East End to start a new life without the booze, a girl he befriends notices his accent. "Why do you speak so funny?...Whit School did you go to?" Leanne says, after Shuggie announces, "I heard that you were very attractive."
The potential irony here is that in the community it might be Shuggie who sounds funny but on the page, this world of taste and refinement that is literature, Leanne is the one who sounds peculiar. That notion of what is standard, normal and received has of course been a principal problematic of Kelman's work and it would seem Stuart chooses to bypass it, making the narration standard English so that within the novel Leanne and numerous other working-class characters retain their peculiarity. It gives to the novel an easy way in for the reader who likes their work in standard English but at the same time risks immense condescension as it creates a gap between the reader and many of the characters it allows the reader to feel superior to the character. Had the novel been in the first person one could accept that Shuggie was different from others, that his mother's insistence that he speak 'well' means that his narration would be at odds with the community, that the language used to tell the story and the language used when characters communicate with each other would be distinct, and the book could have had an ongoing sense of alienation that was linguistically grounded.
This doesn't mean that fiction should eschew standard narration, most books are still written and translated in a manner that would be regarded as standard, consistent with the ways essays, newspaper articles and reports are written, with spelling and punctuation consistent too across all forms. But if a writer does deviate from norms, then it becomes a formal question, and to fall into standard prose, with intermittent dialect, the contract between reader and writer at the expense of character often becomes apparent.
Instead, by taking for granted this assumption in the language, it is as if it gives birth to a greater oblivion in the perceptual process itself, and a sense that one reason the book is so easy to read is that its prejudices are so commonly available. In such a short essay we don't have time to explore the numerous examples but here are three. In the first, Agnes has taken a job nearby. "The petrol station doubled as a small shop, the only place for a mile that sold cigarettes, sugary ice lollies, and bags of oven chips. It was the centre of nothing." Much earlier in the book, Agnes is living in a Sighthill high-rise with her kids and her parents and she wants to get revenge on her cheating husband, Shug. "...She went out into the landing and waited for the piss-stained elevator...Except for petrified dog shit and some faint scorch marks, the forecourt was empty...Agnes had ridden the Sighthill elevator all that afternoon with a mop bucket full of cold tea dregs and piss." In our third example, "Jinty hated Shuggie because his presence guilted Agnes into a period of dryness. If it wasn't for him they could have left the shores of sobriety behind and forever sailed a sea of Special Brew."
In each instance, we might ask who is doing the perceiving. Is it Agnes who thinks it was the centre of nothing, and would she be inclined to have such thoughts when it would seem no more the centre of nothing than the nearby pit village she is living in? It is the sort of remark somebody makes when seeing a place for the first time but nothing suggests this place would be unfamiliar to Agnes. In the second instance, again, Agnes has been living for what would seem to have been years on this estate. She has long since left her first husband and has a young boy (the title character) with the man she left him over. Her comment on the piss-stained elevator and the dog-shit again suggests somebody relatively new to the environment and we might wonder whose observations they happen to be. In the third case, would the young child Shuggie think of them sailing a sea of Special Brew, or would this be Agnes's or Jinty's perception? Frequently, we conclude it is the narrator's, creating a position stranded from character, yet not quite owning the narration in traditional omniscience.
It creates an uneasy relationship between the writer and the reader, so that, in both dialect adopted and mores viewed, Stuart tells us that we are never quite with the characters, we are viewing them from a position that has nothing to do with their poverty and it is the writer's job to invite us into this alien world with observations that constantly remind us of our distance from it. That Stuart's background is no less working class than Kelman's (and perhaps more so) isn't reason enough to assume that condescension has been eschewed. One could equally, and just as naively, propose that Stuart is writing from a position of privilege he worked for years in the fashion industry in New York.
When Agnes thinks she is in the centre of nothing we can conclude that this could be the general pervasive claim of the whole book. But this is a world, one in which people exist however well or badly, and while a writer has absolutely no obligation to create positive characters or situations, great writing usually makes the familiar, unfamiliar, allows us to see things with a fresher eye than the perceptual equivalent of standard English. The book may be littered with numerous similes but sometimes such a device can be the lowest form of defamiliarisation, that it can elevate the prose without generating much by way of a new vision. When Shug early in the book leaves Agnes "abandoned behind the door like a ragged draught excluder", "threw her on the rented bed like a burst bin bag" and, elsewhere, when Shug's thin hair "danced like beach grass in the breeze", or "Agnes's hardened hairspray cracked like chicken bones as he wound his fingers into the strands", we have simile as objectification. It adds to the feeling that here is a book that while ostensibly in deep sympathy with the lives it depicts, remains aloof from many of the problems Kelman sought to examine. Its success isn't a surprise and one could do worse than try and understand the nature of its appeal. It could well reside in a book that is a vivid exploration of poverty but maybe not so vivid that it would pass for 'literary vandalism' in searching deeper into the problems of prose
© Tony McKibbin