by Alasdair Gray

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Lanark is Gray’s first and best-known novel. Often compared to the works of Dante Alighieri and William Blake, it is considered by many critics to be a masterpiece of satire and psychological insight. The novel’s magnification of late twentieth century political and social ills within the context of the surreal Unthank lifts it out of the realm of mere provincial or regional literature.

Gray, who won the prestigious Whitbread Prize for his novel Poor Things (1992), does not separate politics and capitalism from the human animal. Thus, Lanark is as much an Orwellian tract about the fascist tendencies of modern society as it is a complex profile of Thaw and a marvelous, deeply felt fantasy.

The surreal elements of the dystopian Unthank and the Institute are perfectly counterbalanced by the naturalistic portrayal of Thaw’s life in Glasgow. The book’s uncompromisingly grim dystopia is offset by gritty humor, Gray’s eccentric illustrations, and creative typography.

This broad canvas served as a blueprint for Gray’s later books, which take pieces of Lanark’s central themes and magnify them. The lens thus is turned on pornography and the failures of socialism in the hallucinogenic 1982 Janine (1984) and on the British class system and male-female relationships in Poor Things, a pastiche of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).

In an aside positioned near the end of Lanark, Gray thoughtfully provides an index of plagiarisms. The most relevant influences listed include Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, Hugh MacDiarmid, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. The book’s portrayals of Glasgow owe a huge debt to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), although Gray does not attempt to duplicate Joyce’s experimental use of language. The unrepentant arguments for the necessity of Scottish sovereignty echo the writings of Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid. Carroll, the godfather of surrealism, and Vonnegut, a twentieth century Jonathan Swift, must be considered direct predecessors of the novel’s afterworld scenes. Gray manages to combine Carroll’s playfulness with the ironic time distortion Vonnegut used in books such as Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). The genius of Gray’s often overlooked book lies in its successful synthesis of such disparate influences.

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Critical Context