(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The fact that Janice Galloway’s Where You Find It was published for the first time in the United States six years after it first appeared in Britain says a great deal about the United States’ lack of interest in one of the hottest topics in Britain in the 1990’s, contemporary Scottish literature.Trainspotting—both Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel and Danny Boyle’s 1997 film—aside, Scotland to most Americans means little more than kilts and bagpipes, shortbread and single malt, the moviesBraveheart (1995) and Rob Roy (1995). The Irish, on the other hand, are much better represented, from the dance stage extravaganza Riverdance and Frank McCourt’s memoirAngela’s Ashes (1996) to the plays of Martin McDonagh and the fiction of Edna O’Brien, Roddy Doyle, and Patrick McCabe. Nonetheless, Galloway’s relative lack of an American connection is odd. Her fiction is held in high esteem in Britain and poses none of the linguistic difficulties of the works of James Kelman or Welsh. Furthermore, it is often read in feminist terms. One can argue that Galloway has not helped matters because she has published relatively little. The Trick Is to Keep Breathing (1989), her first and arguably her best book, had to wait five years before alternative publisher Dalkey Archive Press finally brought it out in the United States. Blood (1991), a collection of short stories, fared much better, issued in the United States by Random House in 1992, as did the novels Foreign Parts (1994) and Clara (2002). Given that Galloway tries to scrape by on her writing, she could certainly benefit from greater access to (and exposure in) the American market.

Perversely enough, perhaps the success of Braveheart and Rob Roy helps explain why Galloway remains so unknown in the United States. Neither she nor her fiction wallows in the past or in cinematic clichés. It is relentlessly contemporary and as unrelievedly grim as the Glasgow of Lynne Ramsay’s 1999 film Ratcatcher. Her slices of Scottish life lie well outside the tourist guidebooks. They take place in the margins of the here and now, a kind of claustrophobic nonplace, a damp, unbearably palpable present in which time does not so much pass as thicken. This heart-stopping psychologizing of time and space contributes to the emotional impact of her work. As Tom Shone pointed out in his review of Foreign Parts, “Galloway’s talent has always been for the grim anatomies of minds at their wits’ end.” Matters of class and gender loom large in her work. Although pegged early on as a feminist writer, there is nothing doctrinaire or propagandistic about her writing. Her characters—almost all of them women—are generally stuck in bad relationships (including marriages), bad jobs (when they have them) and often worse housing, barely holding on emotionally and financially. Not surprisingly, given the claustrophobic nature of their lives and surroundings, they long for escape as well as security, the one often leading (disastrously) to the other. The grim realism of these stories often swerves into the surreal, thus heightening the already hallucinatory quality of the writing: “The telly throws grey blobs over the inside of the room, shifting all the time”; “the chips get colder. You see the fat on them going stiff”; “the air inside the room [is as] thick as raw meat.” Here is dread, a vague menace, a suffocatingly stale atmosphere that breeds fear: the fear of failure, the fear that comes from wanting so much and from not being wanted enough.

Galloway works within a narrow range—not Jane Austen’s “inch of ivory,” but some scrap of rusted metal or the damp spot on a housing-block wall. The desperation she chronicles is pervasive but it is also poetically rendered and artfully arranged. Words and images from one story reappear in the next to create a subtly linked effect. Instead of repetition, the reader experiences a frightening coherence. Galloway makes equally deft use of typography and layout that show fellow Scot Alisdair Gray’s influence and that both heightens the stories’ psychological impact and disrupts and deconstructs the personal and cultural narratives that dominate her characters’ lives. An anatomy of the collection yields interesting results. There are twenty stories contained in approximately 220 pages, some as short as 2 pages, one as long as 18; nine in the first person, eleven in the third; fifteen have female narrators or focal characters, three male, and two indeterminate; eight are told in the present tense, twelve in the past (albeit a past that affords little temporal distance and therefore little comfort to the reader). The pattern or clustering of past-present narration is unobtrusive but effective: two present, four past, five present, eight past, one present (this closing story is the most poetic—a...

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