Lanark

by Alasdair Gray

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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.

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