Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 675
Alasdair James Gray is generally regarded as one of the foremost practitioners of postmodern and socially relevant fiction. He was born into a working class family—his father ran a box-making machine in a factory—and until he was twenty-five years old he lived in the family apartment in Glasgow, Scotland, where he had grown up. During World War II, the family was briefly evacuated from their home, and this dislocation, along with Gray’s tendency to have nightmares and asthma attacks, underlay the creation of the apocalyptic backdrop to his first novel, Lanark. Gray was educated in primary and secondary schools, as well as at the Glasgow School of Art. His experiences while attending art school provided material for the naturalistic sections of Lanark. Glasgow, however, provided the inspiration, for growing up there during the 1940’s and 1950’s meant witnessing the dismantling of the Scottish industrial economy as well as the defeat of a Socialist movement that Gray had believed could create a way for Scotland to move toward a humane and lasting prosperity.
After graduating from art school, Gray made his living as a teacher, portrait and mural painter, and radioplay and teleplay writer. In the late 1960’s, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) chose Gray to be the subject of a documentary. This sudden notoriety after complete obscurity became the subject of his television play The Fall of Kelvin Walker and, later, a short novel by the same name.
As of the age of eighteen, Gray worked on Lanark, parts of which appeared in Scottish International Review in 1969, in Glasgow University Magazine in 1974, and in Words in 1978 and 1979. Once it appeared in 1981, this work garnered high praise from a number of critics. The novelist Anthony Burgess wrote in Ninety-nine Novels: The Best Since 1939 (1984), “It was time Scotland produced a shattering work of fiction in the modern idiom. This is it.” The novel’s originality lies in the often playful juxtaposition of the surreal and the naturalistic, a juxtaposition Gray employs in the service of satire and social commentary. What most impressed the critics, however, was the poignancy of the main character’s quest for literal and figurative light against the backdrop of Glasgow and the sunless, disintegrating afterworld city of Unthank.
Gray followed Lanark with the short-story collection Unlikely Stories, Mostly and his second novel, 1982 Janine. Unlikely Stories, Mostly, with its brilliant central story “Five Letters from an Eastern Empire,” confirmed Gray’s stature as a major innovator and storyteller. 1982 Janine, an examination of pornography within a political and social context, was considered among the best of its genre written in the 1980’s.
The subsequent novels The Fall of Kelvin Walker and McGrotty and Ludmilla were greeted with critical ambivalence, however, and Something Leather received some of the worst reviews of Gray’s career. That novel’s cross-stitched tales of repression and sadomasochism was found to lack cohesion, although many of the segments, especially “The Man Who Knew About Electricity,” worked very well as self-contained short stories. In “Critic-fuel,” Gray’s epilogue to Something Leather, he revealed that he had written the book in an attempt to regain inspiration by writing about female characters, and he acknowledged that “imagination will not employ whom it cannot surprise.”
Yet Gray’s next novel, Poor Things, proved that Something Leather had indeed been Gray’s first, stumbling step toward reimagining his fiction. A faux Victorian novel with a Frankenstein theme and several conflicting narratives, this work won a number of awards, among them the Whitbread Prize, and reestablished Gray as a preeminent postmodern author. The novel triumphs on several levels: as a vastly entertaining parody, as a serious examination of women’s rights, and as a profile of a true innocent abroad in the world.
Later works, such as Ten Tales Tall and True and A History Maker, suggest continuing rejuvenation of Gray’s interest in fiction as a form of expression. His writing has consistently displayed three qualities: boundless imagination, a sharp eye for the absurdity of modern life, and brave experimentation with narrative structure.