Alasdair Gray Essay - Critical Essays


Without a true, single writing style for his long fiction, Alasdair Gray writes as though speaking from behind a series of masks with different personalities and modes of expression. This has not kept him from having a remarkably distinctive style of his own, however. Once familiar with Gray’s works, a reader is likely to pick up a novel or collection of short stories and experience a sense of familiarity. Gray has exerted an unusual control over the visual presentation of his longer fiction, a feature of his style that comes from his background in the graphic arts. In addition to providing cover and interior illustrations, he has enhanced his writing with an array of fonts and type-size variations, and by using a variety of word-spacings.

Gray’s writing does not lack the characteristic literary elements, however. Perhaps most significant is his pseudodocumentary approach, in which fictional documents are presented to tell the story. In some novels, these documents take the form of commentaries and glosses that not only provide specious interpretations of events but also give them added depth.

In Lanark, these pseudodocumentary glosses appear in small sections parallel to the main text and are reminiscent of those found in Finnegans Wake (1939) by James Joyce. In later novels, the pseudodocumentary approach becomes integral to Gray’s work as a whole. In Poor Things, for instance, Gray assigns his own authorship only to the novel’s introduction and endnotes. He presents the rest of the “novel” as a historical document.

Also distinctive are Gray’s leading characters, who are typically from working- and lower-class backgrounds. Jock McLeish in 1982 Janine is an electrician in unhappy circumstances; Archibald McCandless in Poor Things is of farm-servant origins, and he must struggle for acceptance among wealthy medical students; John Tunnock in Old Men in Love is a retired schoolteacher with unrecognized talents.

Gray has not shied from employing Scotticisms in his fiction, including the words “mibby” for “maybe” and “couldnae” for “couldn’t.” Some critics also regard Gray’s dark humor as distinctively Scottish.


Although in some ways a fragmented and willfully distorted narrative, Lanark is a remarkably accessible story about two characters, Lanark and Duncan Thaw, who are soon discovered by the reader to be the same person. As the story begins, Lanark and Duncan Thaw are living in separate but related worlds: one a gloomy, imaginary world called Unthank and the other Glasgow in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Duncan Thaw, in Glasgow, endures fairly mundane, everyday concerns. He decides on a vocation, studies at an art school, moves in and out of relationships, and pursues the beginnings of a career as a muralist.

With a boldness that would become his trademark, Gray chooses to open his novel not in Glasgow but in Unthank, a dimly adumbrated city where...

(The entire section is 1240 words.)