by Alasdair Gray

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Lanark by Alasdair Gray, published in 1981, was a critical and cult success and garnered much praise, but is a tricky book to summarize, especially in terms of the plot. A book summary should consider the title, plot, characters, themes, style and technique, historical and social context, and reception. Let's take a look at some of those elements.

The title here is the name of the main character, although he begins life as Duncan Thaw, and the subtitle, “A life in four books” gives a clue as to its structure. The four books, however, are ordered Three, One, Two, Four, along with a prologue and epilogue.

The plot describes the story of the hero’s life. We follow him through the city of Unthank and back to memories of an earlier life in Glasgow. The time in Unthank is written in an allegorical style, with various fantastical elements, such as the ‘dragonhide’ disease that he succumbs to. The next section is more realist, and can be understood to some extent as autobiographical. It describes the life of a young boy who suffers from numerous health issue and his various mentors.

The novel contains both realist and dystopian, surrealist elements. As a primarily allegorical work, the characters are often representative of types, rather than individuals. Unthank is a bit like hell, and a main theme of the book is considering the nature of hell. The artist life is also observed and discussed. There are numerous allusions to other literary texts.

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