MY Twitter followers – the clamouring hordes of them – may be relieved to hear I’ve just emerged from my Book Week Scotland rereading challenge of Alasdair Gray’s magnum opus, Lanark.
The conclusion: like Ulysses, Lanark’s a struggle in parts, but deserves its reputation as one of the Great Scottish Novels, if not the Big Yin itself.
For three quarters of the way it’s a masturbatory super-ego of a book, obsessed with the eternal male struggle to achieve greatness and get laid. A Portrait of the Artist as child, adolescent, and finally Young Man, as swollen as the statuesque figures in Gray’s illustrations. But what makes Lanark far more than just another bildungsroman is that it takes place in three different worlds. We begin with Book 3, in the hellish imaginary city of Unthank, which ends with protagonist Lanark slipping down a hatch into The Institute – what appears to be an underground recovery programme for the psychologically disturbed. Here he is told the story of Thaw, an artistic lad born to a Socialist father in the familiar city of Glasgow, Scotland, in the second half of the 20th century. Thaw’s story takes up the subsequent 250 pages of Books 1 and 2, ending – spoiler alert – in the revelation that Thaw drowned and was seemingly reincarnated as Lanark in the parallel universe of Unthank.
Books 2 and 3 contain fabulous writing and painfully accurate observations of artistic youth, but I can’t be the only reader for whom Thaw’s demise came as a bit of a relief. There are only so many times you can read about a protagonist fantasising about girls and being stood up by them, in between painting masterpieces that nobody appreciates as much as they ought to.
Keep going though – because Part 4 is where Lanark really justifies its status as a classic for the ages. The postmodern party tricks come out – in a premature epilogue Gray namedrops lists of the works he’s plagiarised in a deliberately obvious ploy to enter the pantheon as a Scottish Dante. Then the author pops up himself – or at least a version of him under the name of Nastler – telling Lanark the critics will cry Self Indulgence but who cares he’s doing it anyway. Fortunately amidst this the plot is still kicking with more vigour than a Star Wars sequel: Lanark finally has his girl, Rima, and after groping their way through purgatory back to Unthank via an underpass off the alternative M8, she has his child, but promptly abandons him for his old pal from the arts cafe, Sludden, who’s cashed in his radical chips and become Lord Provost of Unthank. Squatting in Unthanks’s version of St Mungo’s Cathedral, Lanark now finds himself on the inside of its political elite. By this time we know the Institute is really the Centre of The Known Universe (possibly not counting Nastler’s cubbyhole), and receives its energy from the destruction of cities ‘above’. Supreme leader Lord Monboddo (played by Christopher Lee) has earmarked Unthank next for obliteration, and it’s down to Lanark to use his non-existent diplomatic skills to save the day.
All is set for a savage parody of an international political gathering, where Lanark has the thankless task of representing Unthank, is ambushed by dirty tricks, the unaccustomed attentions of women, and the honeyed words of Blairesque neo-liberal smoothie Monboddo.
Et voila. As well as being a lyrical evocation of a life, a love letter to Glasgow, and a literary exploration of experimental physics, Lanark also speaks to the modern politcal dystopia – and makes you contemplate how Scotland might emerge from the whole shambolic shit-show that is Brexit.
Now if only there was a Nastler in a cupboard somewhere who could pop up and write that one out of existence…