Alasdair Gray

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1240

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 He presents the rest of the “novel” as a historical document.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 people suffer fantastic physical diseases that reflect their psychic states. While living in Unthank, Lanark tries to find friendship, love, and meaning.

Gray’s statement on the novel’s contents page, “Thaw’s story exists within the hull of Lanark’s,” suggests that even the realistic narrative must be understood in terms of the one that is highly fantastic. Thaw struggles to achieve meaningful goals, and he wants those goals to be understood by the reader. Lanark’s struggles, on the other hand, arise from his trying to deal with the puzzling world he is trapped within. Like Thaw, he seeks personal rewards, but in a far more forbidding and restrictive context, one that makes Lanark seem at times dystopian.

Poor Things

Poor Things is a striking example of the pseudodocumentary style of Gray’s fiction. The novel’s subtitle is Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D., Scottish Public Health Officer, and the title page shows Gray as the novel’s “editor.” Gray admits to writing two parts of the book, the introduction and the section at the end of the novel, “Notes Critical and Historical.” In the introduction, Gray states his case for the historical nature of the narrative to follow. He describes the discovery of the manuscript in Glasgow by a Scottish researcher who believes in its authenticity although not its veracity. The main text of the novel then follows, with authorship attributed to the novel’s main male character, Archibald McCandless. A letter from McCandless’s wife follows, disputing Archibald’s account. The book ends with Gray’s “Notes Critical and Historical,” to which he has signed his own name. The novel also features manuscript facsimiles, portraits of the main characters, medical drawings, and other illustrations.

Gray’s patchwork approach is fully appropriate to the story of the novel, a reimagining of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s famous novel Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). Shelley’s character, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, uses his medical knowledge to piece together a living man from parts of human corpses. In Poor Things, Dr. Godwin Bysshe Baxter performs a similar operation, but he constructs a woman rather than a man. A major theme of the novel is the “making” of people. Chapters include “Making Bella Baxter,” “Making Me,” and “Making Godwin Baxter.”

The name Godwin Bysshe Baxter is a tribute to Shelley’s father (William Godwin), her husband (poet Percy Bysshe Shelley), and her friend (William Baxter). The doctor’s female creation, Bella Baxter, takes on the married name of Victoria McCandless, which echoes the name of Shelley’s fictional doctor, Victor Frankenstein.

In keeping with Gray’s other novels, Poor Things does not shy away from politics. Whereas Shelley’s Frankenstein includes Scotland among its locations, Poor Things makes Glasgow its most important locale. Scotland’spostcolonial difficulties are among the novel’s main concerns.

A History Maker

A History Maker takes place in the twenty-third century, in a matriarchal society in which the gender roles are not so much reversed as exaggerated to the point of near absurdity. Sexual freedom is taken for granted on Earth, although traditional marriages prevail in outer-space communities. The common notion that men prefer younger mates is one element reversed in this future society: Men in this world strongly prefer older women, presumably because they hold all the social power.

In this future world, waging war is one of the primary occupations for men. Warfare, now restricted to the use of hand-to-hand weapons, is a game. It is a form of entertainment, recorded by constantly hovering Public Eyes.

Even with vastly improved methods for patching up the wounded and dying, warfare remains a deadly activity. At the beginning of A History Maker, one entire warring club, the Ettricks, who have enjoyed fifty years without defeat, are facing not only defeat but utter annihilation; only a few members of the club are still standing. Surrounded by enemy clubs, the Ettrick soldiers opt for a desperate measure that leaves only one soldier, Wat Dryhope, unscathed. The desperate measure was designed in part to win attention, for warfare has now become less interesting and entertaining to both participants and watchers. The ruse works, on several levels: The desperate action attracts global attention, and Dryhope becomes a hero. His becoming a hero, however, threatens the stability of his society.

The story ends only three-quarters of the way through the book. What remains is a glossary that initially performs the simplest of glossary tasks (as in defining the word “neeps” as turnips). The book ends with background information about the story, giving A History Maker substantially more weight as a novel.

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