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.
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...
(The entire section is 1,259 words.)