Alan Bissett arrived in the CCA café, a ‘writer’s beard’ darkening his boyish features. He stopped shaving while finishing his fourth novel, Pack Men, which is to be published towards the end of the year. Pack Men is a sequel to his first novel, Boy Racers. It drew upon Bissett’s adolescence. Born in 1975, he grew up in Falkirk, a member of an extended working class family. ‘I’d probably still describe myself as working class. Caveats obviously.’ His father worked at Grangemouth Oil Refinery, where he was injured in a flare line incident in 1987, the subject of a short film Bissett made two years ago. After graduating from the University of Stirling with a first class degree in English and Education. Bissett worked as a teacher in Elgin for a short period before returning to Stirling to complete a Masters in English literature. While on the course, he wrote Boy Racers, which was published in 2001.
Boy Racers, he remembered, was written during an economic boom. Alvin, the central character, an aimless teenager endlessly looping Falkirk’s streets in a car with friends, was working class, but, Bissett specified, he was ‘aspirational working class’. Earmarked as “university material”, Alvin ends the book departing for further education and away from childhood friends and hometown. It’s the classic narrative arc of the gifted working-class kid bettering himself through education.
More than references to ‘personal stereos’ and Robbie Williams, that attitude to university makes Boy Racers a period piece. Few can easily believe anymore that graduation is the ticket to social advancement it once was, not when the average student leaves tertiary education shouldering a considerable sum of debt and with graduate unemployment high. Bissett, who taught Creative Writing at the University of Leeds, described the system as a ‘sausage machine’. Pack Men deals with the recession and is set, Bissett said, ‘in the graveyard of graduate dreams’. Ten years after he left, Alvin is back in Falkirk, caught where he began as if he had never left. The dream is over.
But another dream persists in Bissett’s fiction. The lie-dream of popular culture. It has rushed in to fill the space communal, religious, and political ties once filled. Few books can contain as many references to comics, rock, TV, and commercial cinema as Boy Racers: ‘Hallgreen receding behind us like stars at warp speed cos it’s Friday, seven-thirty, time for Top of the Pops and tramps like us, baby, we were born to run.’ In Death of a Ladies Man (2009) blocks of film and book titles break into the text as if they were as crucial to our understanding of what kind of man its hero, Charlie Bain, is as the actions he takes.
Beginning with Boy Racers, and developed in The Incredible Adam Spark (2005) and Death of a Ladies Man, Bissett dramatised the tragicomic gap between media mirages of the good life and the cold reality we live in.
‘Popular culture is the advance guard of capitalism, the friendly face. And it’s an illusion,’ he said, before surprising me. ‘I don’t believe in it anymore.’ He expressed a desire to isolate himself from it. ‘I’ve said all I can about it and as I get older, I’m less impressed by it. There’s something to be said for the Jonathan Franzen approach.’ Franzen revealed in interviews given to promote Freedom in 2010 that he doesn’t own a television, has disconnected his internet portal, and wears earplugs while writing. Franzen inspired Bissett to stop watching TV. It’s like hearing Graham Greene renounce Catholicism.
The prevalence of popular culture seduces and infantilises. Charlie Bain is an enthusiastic consumer. Tellingly, although 30-years-old, he lives with his mother. ‘Genius is staying a child for as long as possible,’ Bain thinks. He is a man whose idea of a chat-up line is to ask women who they fancy more: Han Solo or Indiana Jones. Often he appears childishly naïve about the consequences of his actions, particularly with regard to sex and love. A teacher, his need to remain “with it” and “down” with the kids leads to disaster when he makes an ill-starred decision to attend a pupil party.
Death of a Ladies Man highlights how attitudes to sex have changed in Scotland. Compare it with one of its obvious inspirations, Kelman’s A Disaffection. That novel came out in 1989 and the twenty years that separate it from Bissett’s book reveal a sea-change in terms of attitudes to sex. Both books centre upon men on the cusp of their thirties. Kelman’s Patrick Doyle and Bissett’s Charlie are teachers in secondary schools. They’re both left-wing in their politics and express doubt about their jobs, whether they’re merely softening up kids to serve an unjust society.
Patrick is trapped in an unrequited passion for a married colleague. He doesn’t appear to have made love for some time, toys with using prostitutes, and you suspect his rage is in part fuelled by involuntary celibacy. Charlie, on the other hand, has multiple sexual partners. He’s not an exception. Glasgow clubland is a vision of venery, sex a social lubricant like alcohol for a previous generation. Whereas Patrick expresses some astonishment that his sister-in-law admitted to him that she had had sex with men before meeting her husband.
‘Sex is a way to bond with someone which you can’t do in any other way,’ Bissett commented. ‘When two people have sex they understand each other in a way that doesn’t happen in conversation.’ His depiction of the consequences of pursuing sex, however, is not so benevolent. Bain leads a life the cast of Boy Racers could only dream off, yet when his story ends, he is a shattered drunk, abandoned. ‘The horizon of pleasure recedes the closer you get to it,’ said Bissett. ‘There’s never a final orgasm. It’s constant motion. There’s always another illusion on the horizon. It’s like capitalism. You can never satisfy the customer.’
After Pack Men, he intends to do something completely different. ‘I’ve said all there is to say about Falkirk.’ He has experimented with theatre, and performed in monologues written by himself. If he writes another novel, he said, it will be nothing like what’s gone before. ‘Something way outside my range. A historical novel, or a futuristic one. Or I’ll completely embrace the e-book and do something that plays to its strengths and mine.’ Or he might quit. ‘If it means to survive as a writer, to get published, I’ve got to become too heavily commercialised, I’ll just stop.’
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