Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 294

If William Burroughs and Will Self had a baby, which was then adopted by Irvine Welsh, he might write Lanark . Alasdair Gray wrote this dark, weird novel about Glasgow in the 1960s and 70s, when Glasgow was a much-loved yet much-maligned place. It still is, but there was a...

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If William Burroughs and Will Self had a baby, which was then adopted by Irvine Welsh, he might write Lanark. Alasdair Gray wrote this dark, weird novel about Glasgow in the 1960s and 70s, when Glasgow was a much-loved yet much-maligned place. It still is, but there was a lot more truth to the caricatures back then.

Growing up filthy, poor, and angry in a declining industrial town might make you a little unstable and unenthusiastic about your future. Surviving the endemic drug addiction, crime, and violence of Glasgow's rougher parts might make you tough and stubborn. You can see how Alasdair Gray might have put a lot of himself into the character of Duncan Thaw and Lanark.

His book is a parable of decline. Both main characters sink into lassitude, then depression, and finally into madness, despair, and death. Glasgow is still on the map, and it's a thriving post-industrial city on the way up again, but Gray didn't know that then. The Winter of Discontent turned all of Britain into a grumbling bingo hall shortly before the book was published, and the course of Lanark's and Thaw's misfortunes tracks that of Glasgow.

The lesson you can take from the parable is that if you're too inward-looking, too obsessed with what you're due from someone else, and care too little about the people you can touch, you're doomed. There's no Thatcherite bootstrapping nonsense, because it hadn't been invented yet—just a lot of cautionary observations for people sharp enough to make them. The bits at the end of each tale, where Thaw drowns himself and Lanark just sits down and waits to die, suggest that only you can save yourself from despair. However, there isn't a lot of saving anything in the book.

The Plot

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 627

Alasdair Gray worked on Lanark: A Life in Four Books for at least twenty years and claims to have written parts of the book at the age of eighteen. Portions of Lanark appeared in Scottish International Review (1969), Glasgow University Magazine (1974), and Words (1978, 1979).

Lanark chronicles the journeys of Duncan Thaw through the disintegrating afterworld city of Unthank and back to memories of a prior life in a stagnant, post-industrial Glasgow. Thaw, with his memories wiped clean upon his arrival in Unthank, takes the name of Lanark.

As Lanark, Thaw is nothing as simple as a ghost; as with the other inhabitants of this sunless afterworld, the actions he takes have serious repercussions. Unthank is a hell that magnifies and intensifies all the worst elements of life on Earth, such as corruption, crime, and political and environmental irresponsibility. Against this backdrop, mouths flap like wings through the gravel sky while men and women encased in thick “dragon hide,” reflecting a soul-sickness, burn up or crack open their skins to emerge naked and reborn.

Lanark becomes embroiled with the ambitious Sludden and his clique, who mean to overthrow Unthank’s leadership. Sludden’s consort, Rima, is a shrewish woman who knew Thaw, thus accounting for her attraction to and repulsion against Lanark. Lanark’s pursuit of a reluctant Rima is cut short by the accelerated growth of his dragon hide. Seeking a remedy, Lanark plunges into the maw of a talking tombstone, only to emerge in the Institute.

At the Institute, doctors study the dragon hide condition, known formally as crystalline hypertrophy of the connective tissue. As a survivor, Lanark is enlisted to help new arrivals, one of whom is a bitter woman completely incased in the hide. In one of the book’s more remarkable scenes, her dragon hide breaks open under Lanark’s ministrations, and Rima crawls out.

Reunited as lovers, Lanark and Rima discover that the doctors prefer to induce the dragon hide condition, so that patients can be recycled into food cubes or their explosion energy trapped in generators. Gray clearly means for such exploitation to be symbolic of the treatment of the lower classes by multinational corporations.

Aided by a mechanical oracle, Lanark regains memories of his life as Duncan Thaw. These memories of lower-class life in a declining Glasgow describe Thaw’s absurdist downward spiral through creativity into madness. His father, a wages clerk, finds the money for the talented Thaw to attend art school. Thaw remains alienated by the repressive social structure and, worse, fails to forge relationships with a succession of women, particularly Judy McAlpin and Marjory Laidlaw, who are thwarted by his awkward intensity. When a church mural project is taken away from him, an increasingly desperate Thaw convinces Laidlaw to take a walk with him, then murders her and drowns himself in a nearby river.

Faced with these memories and the truth about the Institute, Lanark convinces Rima to leave with him in a search for a better place. They travel by means of an intercalendrical zone where time runs differently. When Rima becomes pregnant, she immediately gives birth to their son, Alexander.

Eventually, they return to Unthank, where Rima and Alexander leave Lanark for the city’s new ruler, Sludden. Catastrophe awaits Unthank, which will be destroyed to provide energy for other afterworld cities. Sludden persuades Lanark to attend a conference of the afterworld’s leaders to plead Unthank’s case. Lanark fails badly but achieves a personal victory when he has a waking dream of a sojourn with his son to a mossy stream far from civilization. At the novel’s end, Lanark, as an old man, returns to an embattled Unthank to make his peace with Alexander and Rima before preparing himself for a more permanent death.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 41

The Atlantic. Review. CCLV (June, 1985), p. 104.

Fantasy Review. Review. VIII (June, 1985), p. 18.

The New York Times Book Review. Review. XC (May 5, 1985), p. 14.

Roy, G. Ross. Review in World Literature Today. LVI (Summer, 1982), p. 557.

The Village Voice Literary Supplement. Review. December, 1984, p. 15.

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