IN the reviewing trade, a new book can drop through the letterbox at nine o’clock one morning, and be read, reviewed and put on a shelf, or in the charity box, by six the following evening. As Norman Mailer once pointed out, ‘the underlying force in book reviewing is journalism’. It is easy, therefore, to be swept up in the fashion of the moment. It is why some novelists who seem like geniuses one day read like hacks the next, and vice versa. With this in mind, I decided to reread some Scottish novels published in the last twenty years. The challenge also afforded the opportunity to evaluate the writing of a new generation of novelists.
Here are the novels I chose: The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh, Buddha Da by Anne Donovan, The Panopticon by Jenny Fagan, The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, The Professor of Truth by James Robertson, His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnett, The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan, and The Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallack.
In choosing these novels, one determining factor was the avoidance of any writer who started publishing novels before 2000. By now, most readers understand the quality of earlier novelists still publishing today: James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, Kirsty Gunn and Ali Smith, to name a few. But what of a more recent contingent? Naturally, I picked writers whose names are frequently on the lips of the literati or who have received acclaim. Like journalism, prizes too are subject to fashions; and these days, it seems harder to write a novel that doesn’t win a prize than to write one that does. Nevertheless, prizes can still be markers of quality and offer some clues as to the tastes of the general reader. A few novels here weren’t prize-winners or in the media much at all. They were simply what I found in the Scottish fiction section of the library. If you’re looking for a contemporary Scottish novelist, that’s probably the best place to start. Yet it also raises a tricky question: what makes a novelist Scottish? There’s no easy answer. Anyone who lives and/or publishes in Scotland is probably fair game, as is anyone who, to quote Muriel Spark, is ‘Scottish by formation.’
Let’s begin with the earliest novel on the list: Louse Welsh’s The Cutting Room, published in 2002. It’s about an auctioneer called Rilke who finds a collection of violent pornographic photos during a house clearance. Rilke fancies himself as an amateur sleuth in the mode of the heavy-drinking, smart-talking type in American hardboiled detective fiction. The photographs awaken a few of Rilke’s subconscious desires whilst bringing out his compassion for one of the victims. So, encouraged only by his own will, he decides to find out if the photos are authentic. Naturally, his investigation leads him into a scummy underworld.
Welsh, thankfully, is aware of the origins of his character type. At one point, one of Rilke’s acquaintances tells him to ‘drop the Phillip Marlowe impersonation’. Rilke is always turning up his collar against the rain, or entering rooms permeated with the ‘fug of smoke’. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep also explores the underground trade of pornographic photos and books. Welsh, however, has to find a more disturbing angle, involving sex-trafficking and snuff photography.
Crammed with literary allusion (most of the chapters are prefaced with poetical quotes), The Cutting Room is an enjoyable pastiche that combines a begrimed image of Glasgow – one that Welsh shows as part invention –with a genre that specializes in gangsters and the black market. The plot wavers halfway through the novel, and certain scenes read as though they have been forced, but the finale is well-executed and convincing. What strikes one most, however, is the strength and energy of the prose. Welsh can create a delightfully eccentric or shabby character in a few sentences, and some of her chiaroscuro imagery is quite beautiful. The idea of using an auctioneer as a detective is a clever one, and the setting is apt. An auction house, after all, is a place for discards, away from the cleaner respectful surface of society. There has always been a pulp aspect to Welsh’s fiction. Sometimes, as in her most recent ‘Plague Times’ trilogy, this has been to the detriment of other qualities, such as style and tone. Nevertheless, in The Cutting Room Welsh proves it can enhance rather than cheapen a story.
In Anne Donovan’s Buddha Da, Glasgow is a far more ebullient, light-filled place, where the orange-robed followers of the Dalai Lama can be seen bobbing up and down the Byres Road. There’s not a knife or a gun in sight, and characters are more likely to measure out their lives with cups of herbal tea than tots of Talisker. As the youngest character, Anne Marie, tells us, ‘ma da…used tae go doon the pub on a Tuesday and noo he went tae the Buddhist centre tae meditate.’
The novel begins as a farce. In the opening scene, Anne Marie and her dad, the recently converted Jimmy, drive off to Carmunnock with some ‘Rinpoches’ – that’s ‘holy wans’ to me and you. The ‘heid Rinpoche’ thinks a new baby has been born who is destined to succeed him. Unfortunately, when they turn up at the house, they discover that, for one, the baby’s grandmother is a fierce Protestant, and that the baby is a girl. ‘The lama,’ says one Rinpoche, ‘is always male.’ Young Anne Marie, understandably, takes issue with this. ‘Is that no a bit sexist?’ It’s a funny opening, and the theme of succession will – surprisingly – arise again later in the narrative.
The farce continues: as Jimmy spends more and more time navel-gazing and finding himself, he starts to neglect his family. He becomes teetotal, then celibate, then moves into the meditation centre so he can stare at candles and paint murals of the Buddha in peace. It turns out Buddhists are as selfish as the rest of us. Not only that, but finding internal peace can lead to external chaos. A particularly funny scene involves Jimmy taking a group of chanting Lamas around to a household of Catholics mourning a dead relative laid out in her Sunday best, which rankles a few of the congregation.
Donovan writes in fine flowing Glaswegian. The novel switches between Anne Marie, Jimmy – who, thank the holy wan, does not become too earnest – and Jimmy’s wife, Liz. All the characters are witty, including the minor ones. Here’s Anne Marie’s friend Nisha, for example, on her mother’s habit of keeping the heating on all day: ‘You’ve heard of global warming, haven’t you? Well, this is where it started. My mother can use up to 50% of the earth’s fossil fuels in an afternoon.’ But as the family drama intensifies Donovan’s humour subsides. The tone also changes, and the human comedy is replaced with a social drama of a more conventional kind. It’s a shame. Donovan can write pathos perfectly well, but let’s just say comedy’s her calling.
From well-rendered Glaswegian to inconsistent Lallans. Jenni Fagan’s debut The Panopticon was published in 2012. Written in the first person, it is about the rebarbative and punky Anais Hendricks, who is being held in a young offender’s institute, The Panopticon of the title. Anais is an orphan. She’s been through multiple foster homes, abused and neglected and accused of attacking a police officer, and spends the entire novel under the influence of various drugs. She also obsesses who she is: ‘I am a love-child, conceived during a ritualistic peyote shaman trip. I am the sole offspring of Timothy Leary’s spirit guide (an Amazonian eagle-woman).’ Yet she also believes she is part of a state ‘experiment, created and raised just to see exactly how much, fuck you, a nobody from nowhere can take’. To escape this, she dreams of living a bohemian life in Paris.
The novel is a briefing for a descent into hell, albeit one preoccupied with the idea of rebirth – not in the end through self-knowledge, but through acts of chaos and self-destruction. The Panopticon belongs to an avant-garde tradition of novels – Hubert Selby Jr.’s work springs to mind – designed to shock. But it is also what Muriel Spark called a ‘socially conscious’ novel. This kind of art pits ‘the victim against the oppressor’ and is especially popular among readers today. The oppressors here are the care system, the police, schools, drug dealers and misogynists. As such, it’s a novel with attitude, which is why there’s not much room for subtlety. Then again, we do live in an un-subtle age.
The Central Belt has its beauty spots, but surely not as many as the Highlands and Islands. Where would you rather go on holiday? In Kirsty Logan’s The Gloaming, set on a fantastical Scottish island, Peter, an ex-boxer, and Signe, an ex-ballerina, move with their children into a dilapidated mansion with the hope of turning it into an hotel for tourists. When their youngest child drowns, however, it is the first act in an unfolding tragedy. Of the remaining children, Islay, the oldest, flees to the ‘real world’ of city living; Mara falls in love with an itinerant selkie called Pearl. ‘For almost two years, Mara and Pearl travelled the world as performing mermaids called The Dreamings. They lived in dozens of different homes…every home was a shell and they lived inside them like hermit crabs.’
Despite the horror at its core, The Gloaming is a whimsical novel, albeit one written in a pellucid style and containing some fine imagery. On the surface, Logan’s characters are quirky and charming but her writing falters when she tries to unearth deeper human emotions. This is Pearl telling Mara about her attempted suicide and subsequent metamorphosis into a selkie: ‘I managed to walk back to the house and light the fire, and I wrapped myself in all the blankets I could find and I sat there until I knew I was alive. “Oh, my mermaid,” said Mara in that sleepless Vegas bed, on that night flight over snowy mountains, through a mouthful of bloodied gauze. “My mermaid, my mystery, my selkie.” She punctuated her words with kisses. “My creature from the sea. I always knew you were from another world.”’ Yes, well, that’s enough of that.
Logan’s novel comes with a bibliography…just in case you were worried about the verity of its more fantastical details. Nevertheless, it tells us that ‘the selkie and mermaid stories are adapted from version in David Thomson’s The People of the Sea and Duncan Williamson’s Tales of the Seal People…’ The use of selkies – a magical being not one thing or another – is an intelligent way to explore gender fluidity and the unfixed self. Whilst the quality of her writing can slip, Logan is not short of clever ideas. On the island, for instance, death is a slow process whereby the dying walk up to a cliff edge and turn to stone. These statues are lined up along the cliffs facing the sea, a good counterpoint to Logan’s notion that identity is fluid.
Malachy Tallack’s Shetland is a far more quotidian isle. There are no selkies, but there’s sheep aplenty. The Valley at the Centre of the World is about a year in the life of a small community. Each chapter is split into single days, but the perspective chops and changes between characters. Through them, we get a sense of the extent of their connection to their home. The novel starts with a separation. Sandy and Emma have split up. They are both in their early thirties. Emma, whose parents live in the valley, has gone back to the mainland. Sandy, a taxi driver, has stayed on, unsure of what to do with his life. He thinks about becoming a crofter and starts working as a farm hand for Emma’s father, David.
The opening scenes set a slow methodical tone that is maintained throughout. Tallack likes detail, whether it’s bloody descriptions of killing lambs or meticulous explanations of how a man might undress upon entering his house. Writing about the everyday is often the most difficult task for a writer. John Updike did it with exquisite skill. He could make a cup of tea interesting. Tallack has a talent for it. Here is Sandy working on a lamb: ‘He removed the feet and lower legs. The joints split with a crunch, like the first bit of an apple.’ The simile is apposite. After all, the animal hasn’t been killed for its wool. At other times, the prose becomes sluggish, as does the drama, so much so that when a character’s house catches fire, it’s a cause for celebration.
Tallack doesn’t have a protagonist in the traditional sense, but favours the symphonic approach to character: different peoples’ voices and inner thoughts build throughout the novel so that we get a sense of the variance of life in the valley. It’s a good way of bringing in his central question: what holds a community together? In the past, it was tradition, which was what also dictated a person’s life and loyalties. David, for instance, fears that the peripatetic, millennial generation won’t take up the good old ways of crofting life.
If Tallack’s characters do have one thing in common, it’s that they’re all thoroughly depressed. There’s Terry, for instance, who is an alcoholic, or Jos, unhappily married to Ryan. Or Alice, grieving for her dead husband. Alice is a newcomer to the valley who is writing its history, nicely countering David’s fears for the preservation of the valley’s natural and human history. She is a former crime writer. Her book is the first time she has attempted ‘something real. It was also the first time she had written something for herself, without any other readers in mind’.
Typical, isn’t it? You pick up a good literary novel in the hope of avoiding the clichés of genre fiction only for a crime writer to pop-up after twenty-five pages. It’s a sign of the times. In real life, surely only Scandinavia now rivals Scotland for its number of crime novelists? They’ve even got their own festival; and they’re making it on to Man Booker Prize shortlists, like Graeme Macrae Burnet, deserved nominee in 2016 for His Bloody Project.
Either side of this work, Burnett has published two slighter and lesser known crime novels influenced by George Simenon: The Disappearance of Adele Bédeau and The Accident on the A35. Macrae Burnet is not a fancy stylist – he has very little flair -– but he is a clean one and has a good sense of rhythm. He has learnt from Simenon that with crime novels it’s best not to pepper the page with too many adverbs and multi-clausal sentences. His Bloody Project is a ‘whydunnit’ rather than a ‘whodunnit’, which makes it more interesting than the majority of crime fiction. Set in Culduie, Ross-shire, in the late nineteenth century, the murderer is a 17-year crofter called Roderick Macrae. The novel is an intriguing compendium of papers: a long prison cell confession that Macrae might or might not have written, a report of his trial, statements from residents of Culduie, medical reports, and an excerpt from a book called Travels in the Border-Lands of Lunacy by J. Bruce Thomson, a criminal anthropologist. The story moves swiftly and Macrae’s trial at the end is a captivating courtroom drama. Macrae Burnet is a very moral writer (although, thankfully, not a moralising one). He asks us to consider the morality of an unfair society and weigh it against the actions of a person of questionable sanity. He owes a moral debt to existentialism, with his characters having to create their own freedom in an unfree world. The formal qualities of His Bloody Project are its strength, and it is what makes it one of the better novels of recent years. It’s also one of those strange Scottish novels, like Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things or Muriel Spark’s The Comforters, that self-reflexively question the origin of its own story.
James Robertson’s The Professor of Truth also incorporates elements of the crime genre. His protagonist, however, is trying to disprove someone’s conviction for murder. Robertson may seem like he’s been around for a long time, but his first novel, The Fanatic, was published in the year 2000, so he scrapes in under my criteria. He’s the most prolific and ambitious writer on the list, and an underrated humorist. His vast historical novel And The Land Lay Still, published in 2010, follows Scottish politics from the Second World War to the present day. In writing it, Robertson proved that Scottish political fiction didn’t have to be about elsewhere, as, for many years, the prevailing attitude seemed to suggest.
The Professor of Truth takes its cue from one of the more traumatic periods in recent Scottish history, and arguably, politics: the Lockerbie disaster, and the subsequent controversy over who planted the bomb on Pan Am Flight 103 that killed 270 people in December 1988. In Robertson’s novel, a man called Alan Tealing loses his wife and daughter in a fictional version of Lockerbie. Twenty-one years later, Tealing remains unconvinced that the man convicted of planting the bomb, Khalil Khazar, was responsible for the murder of his family. He has dedicated his life to unearthing the truth. One day, an American secret agent turns up at his door and gives him the address of a key witness in the prosecution. His motivation? The agent tells Tealing he is a born-again Christian with terminal cancer who wants to right a few wrongs before he goes the way of all flesh.
The story is divided into two sections: ‘Ice’ and ‘Fire’. You can guess which part takes place in Scotland, and which part in Australia. Robertson’s style is perfectly calibrated. Tealing is an English Lecturer at a minor Scottish university so he knows a thing or two about rhetoric. His down-to-earth, subdued narrative voice – without linguistic turns or trickery – is partly due to his obsession with plain old-fashioned facts, and, initially at least, a result of his determination to find an objective narrative of events. It also fits Tealing’s emotive state. He lives in a state of resigned grief; in this sense, the novel is an astute study of that most prolonged of emotions, captured in Norman MacCaig’s poem ‘Memorial’: ‘Ever since she died, she can’t stop dying.’
The Professor of Truth is also a well-arranged novel, and one that reflects on the difference between facts and truth, and how they are both controlled, in a sense, by how and when we receive them: ‘I hadn’t ever doubted that the truth would come out eventually, but it if came out when I was dead what use would it be to me? Or if it came out long after all of us – all the fathers and mothers and sisters and lovers of the dead – were gone? By then, it wouldn’t really be the truth at all. It would be information, of historical interest only, provided to people untouched by the event.’ The novel invites us to ask, who controls the story of our lives? Is it possible for us to own the truth? ‘Powerful forces – of governments and other organizations and some individuals – were ranged against the truth being revealed. They would not want the accepted narrative found to be in tatters.’ But this is not a novel about one man up against a whole political and economic system. It is more nuanced than that. It explores our deeper need to make the fleeting moments in our lives add up into some semblance of logic and order.
Professor Tealing goes about his task of ordering the world using old-fashioned empiricism, which turns out to be surprisingly unreliable. In Michel Faber’s Book of Strange New Things the main character, Peter Leigh, is similarly obsessed with finding order, but as a Christian missionary he puts his faith in biblical teaching. In some obvious ways, the novel returns to the territory of Faber’s first, Under the Skin. But, just as Faber’s debut is not really about an anthropomorphized alien looking for appetizing male hitchhikers, The Book of Strange New Things is not really about a race of ‘Jesus Lovers’ who live on a weird planet in a galaxy far far away.
Across his work, Faber’s great theme is the isolation of the human mind, and how we try and fail to cross the void between ourselves and others. Peter is recruited by a large corporation called USIC, which is establishing a new human settlement on a recently discovered planet. Peter’s job is to be a pastor to the natives, The Oasans. He communicates with his wife back on Earth using what seems like an early prototype of the Internet. It soon becomes clear that the Oasans need God (and medicines) because, unlike humans, they cannot heal. One scratch and they’re goners. Faber uses this ironic predicament to deliver a powerful truth. Peter ‘found’ God, or the other way around, and was able to overcome his suffering as an alcoholic. He is so busy helping the Oasans understand Christianity, he misses what they are really after: they, literally, want to be saved too.
The Book of Strange New Things is a complex philosophical novel and a love story that wears its seriousness lightly. Peter’s emails to his wife are embarrassing and the alien planet is so humid he has to wear a ‘dishdasha’ that makes him look like an awkward Bedouin. Moreover, when Peter learns the Oasan language, he encounters insurmountable problems. For example, The Oasans cannot pronounce the ‘s’ sound. Also, Biblical teaching relies on metaphor: a common understanding of certain imagery. The Oasans cannot tell the difference between a fish and an elephant, never having encountered either. Considering its prevalence of fish-related stories, ‘how much of the Bible would he have to give up as untranslatable?’
Apart from being an epistolary novel for the Internet age, Faber pulls off a great trick of character. Peter and Bea are God-loving busy-bodies. On top of which, Peter is also a convert; the worst kind of believer. Despite this, one comes to feel an uncanny affection for both of them. In this way, the novel stands out against the others on this list. In rest of the novels, the protagonists are, in reviewing parlance, ‘likeable’, or – like Roderick Macrae – underdogs.
There is no one trait that unites the novels discussed here. It is worth, though, trying to identify some commonalities. At least three of them are either crime novels or use aspects of the detective genre. The frequent assertion is that crime novelists care about narrative more than style. Well, only the bad ones do. As Robertson and Macrae Burnet demonstrate, just because murder is at the crux of the story, solving it does not have to be a priority. Moreover, writers thrive on exploring extreme states of being, and there aren’t many things more extreme than to end the life of another person.
The novelists here are also writing about stories as much as they are writing about selkies, sheep, Glaswegian Buddhists or auctioneers. Robertson’s Tealing is trying to piece together a true narrative that delivers some sort of justice; in Logan’s one of the characters turns to reading fiction because of its ability to give life to the dead; Anais, in The Panopticon, is looking for her own story; and Rilke in The Cutting Room lives within a fiction. This tendency – to show the extent to which our lives are composed for us – is a curious fashion. It shows that writers are conscious of how stories can undermine or reinforce our assumptions about the world. Nevertheless, it suggests today’s novelists are spending too much time in the classroom, or at book festivals, and not enough time out in the wider world.
A desire to take in and celebrate the vernacular particularities of Scotland – Shetlandic, Glaswegian, Lallans – can also only be a good thing. Yet, despite this careful attention to locality, and considering the political aspect of this kind of writing in Scotland, not many novelists – with the exception of Robertson – incorporate contemporary society and politics into their vision. Rather, they approach politics at an oblique angle, exploring identity politics, for example, or ideas such as truth, justice, and the nature of language.
Political fiction is not the same as the ‘socially conscious fiction’ that seems to be the prevailing mode among novelists now. This sympathetic form of novel favours pathos over comedy and chooses to sympathize rather than mock the human condition – even the novelists who embrace comedy to great affect don’t seem to have faith in its ability to carry a story to its end. It’s a tendency that extends beyond style to character, plot and artistic vision, and could be why many contemporary novelists like to write about internal states of mind. The trend is understandable: after all, lachrymosity is easy to arouse in readers; laughter less so. It’s also a valid and important approach to novel-writing, but a little more scepticism, irony and wit would not go amiss. It would certainly make art, and life, rather more entertaining, especially for a book reviewer on a tight deadline.