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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 248

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...

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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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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1011

Identification of the state with the human organism is, one of the narrators of Lanark tells the reader, a literary device at least as old as Plutarch. In this eccentric, compelling novel by a Scottish writer-painter whose sketches both illustrate and extend the text, the decay of the body politic is the controlling image. Swiftian in its intensity, Lanark is a metafictional allegory. Drawing on sources that range from Vergil to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, from William Blake and Ralph Waldo Emerson to contemporary Scottish novelists, Alasdair Gray creates in the novel a series of worlds which function simultaneously as projections of a collective unconscious, contemporary versions of the classical underworld, and embodiments of a grim, antiutopian social vision. Literary allusions, echoes, and conscious plagiarisms, both hidden and overt, enhance the text, lending power and often humor to the ultimate bleakness of the author’s perspective.

The outline of the story is less complicated than the eccentric organization of the novel’s component parts might suggest. Chapters 1 through 11, identified as book 3 in the table of contents, follow the adventures of the eponymous hero from the moment of his birth or rebirth in a railway car to the point at which, cured of a mysterious disease, he is told, in chapters 12 through 30 (books 1 and 2), the story of his alter ego, or previous self, Duncan Thaw. Lanark’s story, a quest journey filled with archetypes and symbolic figures and scenes, is picked up again in the final third of the book, where it is at one point interrupted by an epilogue, also identified as a prologue, which provides among other things an index to the multiple plagiarisms embedded in the text. What seems at first to be merely a superficial manipulation of the reader’s attention comes to make sense in the emotional rhythm of the fictive pattern and for the most part adds to the impact of the book.

Lanark first appears on the scene in an after-hours coffeehouse in a city that bears a strong resemblance to contemporary Glasgow. Drawn into a clique dominated by the charismatic politician Sludden, Lanark is attracted by one of Sludden’s admirers, the girl Rima, who frustrates him by both inviting and repelling his advances.

It soon becomes apparent that the surface upon which the characters move is at once more and less substantial than it seems. People mysteriously disappear from the streets of the city, strange odors disturb Lanark’s senses, authority figures representing some kind of military body try to recruit him. More disturbing is the evidence that strange diseases are spreading among the populace. Some people grow mouthlike sores on their limbs; Lanark finds his own skin turning crusty, glittering and cold. The progress of the rash, diagnosed by an unperturbed physician as “dragonhide,” parallels the hero’s growing inability to make human contact. Terrified, he tries to flee the city and, in a nightmarishly effective passage, plunges beneath the surface of the earth.

Lanark awakens in a mysterious Institute, a giant hospital filled with endless corridors and pulsing lights, where he is to undergo a course of treatment supervised by the sinister Professor Ozenfant, who plays the violin as he observes the death of human souls. By defying Ozenfant and breaking the rules of the Institute, Lanark manages to save the life of his fellow patient Rima and is rewarded by an oracle with his own story, the life of Duncan Thaw.

At this point in the book, conventional narrative supplants allegory. Thaw’s story is a moving and straightforward history of that familiar figure in the literature of the West, the artist who is at odds with his environment and unable to find a place in the modern world. Thrashing about in postwar Glasgow, seething with ambition and frustration, Thaw is a doomed Lawrentian figure, condemned to destroy himself and others.

Gray notes in the epilogue that Thaw’s story is in part autobiographical and that much of it was written before the “hull” of the novel that is, Lanark’s story had been completely planned. Literally autobiographical or not, this part of the novel is raw and powerful, clearly fueled by memory and personal emotion. A talented and sensitive boy who suffers from asthma and disfiguring rashes, Thaw is imprisoned by poverty and by his own suffering. The various mentors he encounters teachers, clergymen, parents, and friends attempt to give him the intellectual and theological keys to a normal life but cannot help. Teased by girls who awaken his adolescent eroticism and tortured by unfocused guilt, he finds relief from his pain only in work.

By chance, Thaw is given the opportunity to decorate the interior of a decaying parish church. Into the giant mural he creates there, the painter pours his entire understanding of classical and biblical history, of the nature of society and the meaning of creation. Forbidden by the congregation to depict God, Thaw creates masses of natural and supernatural figures. When the congregation rebels and refuses to pay for the completion of the bizarre work, he continues anyway, finally sleeping on the floor of the church, forgetting to drink or eat and lecturing aloud to empty pews. When he is expelled from school, lampooned in the press, and rejected by a prostitute who recoils in horror from his eczema, Thaw explodes, consumed by his own energies.

In its final third, Lanark takes yet another turn. Thaw, whose experiences clearly formed the substructure of the opening chapters, disappears. The cured Lanark, discovering that the Institute runs on the energy released by human disintegration, escapes with Rima along a disorienting, Godot-like road back to the city, Unthank, where Sludden and his henchmen have now assumed control. Given the task of saving the city from the destruction planned for it by the governing Council, Lanark travels across an idealized landscape familiar from Thaw’s childhood, to the prosperous town of Provan. Although he fails in his mission and cannot argue his case, he is rewarded by a role in the epilogue and by the foreknowledge of his death.

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