In Alasdair Gray’s terrible afterworld of Unthank, giant mouths descend from the sky to devour the main character, Lanark, a cold wind rising “with the salty odour of rotting seaweed, then a hot one with an odour like roasting meat.” As Lanark is swallowed up, so is the reader.
Gray’s visions in his masterwork Lanark (1981) are as apocalyptic as they are political, and when the fantastical becomes entwined with themes of social iniquity, the critic who attempts to pull them apart risks being devoured himself. “I believe there are cities where work is a prison and time a goad and love a burden,” Lanark says. Yet embossed on the hardcover first edition of Gray’s novel Poor Things (1992) are the words “Work As If You Live In The Early Days Of A Better Nation.” Dragon hide, “as common as mouths or softs or twittering rigor” in Unthank, encrusts the limbs of citizens in a “glossy cold hide,” the color “an intensely dark green” that causes people to act out their hidden nature: “Lanark saw that his dragon fist was clenching to strike her. He thrust it into his pocket where it squirmed like a crab.” At the same time, many, like Lanark, seek the light in a lightless place, even as the dragon hide conspires to take them into darkness. On the level of prose, at the sub-atomic level, does Gray make his intentions clear through the words of Lanark’s eventual enemy, Sludden?
Metaphor is one of thought’s most essential tools. It illuminates what would otherwise be totally obscure. But the illumination is sometimes so bright that it dazzles instead of revealing.
Lanark’s success may lie in the use of metaphor in prose as tall and true as the title of his second short story collection. Gray’s genius, however, stems from his ability to portray the struggle of the individual against dysfunctional institutions in dual personal and fantastical terms. The entry point for Gray’s exploration of this theme is the centuries-long struggle of the Scots against the English (and, admittedly, against their own shortsightedness). As Gray said in an interview:
My approach to institutional dogma and criteriaâ€”let’s call it, my approach to institutionsâ€”reflects their approach to me. Nations, cities, schools, marketing companies, hospitals, police forces, have been made by people for the good of people. I cannot live without them, don’t want or expect to. But when we see them working to increase dirt, poverty, pain, and death, then they have obviously gone wrongâ€¦Everyone suffers for it, so it is an ingredient in all fiction except the most blandly escapist.
The novel centers around Lanark’s life in the underworld of Unthank and that of his previous incarnation in the “real” world, Duncan Thaw. Thaw, a sensitive artist, attempts to create great art; failing, he commits suicide after first possibly murdering a female friend. A decaying Glasgow of the 1940s and 1950s, similar to that of Gray’s own childhood, serves as the backdrop to the plot.
Lanark arrives in Unthank with no memory of his past as Thaw. As he attempts to discover his identity, Lanark makes his way across a grossly exaggerated mirror of a city, in which all the vices and problems of the “real” world have been magnified and distorted. Once Lanark regains his memory of his life as Duncan, he embarks on a frenetic attempt to save the city of Unthank from destruction. In some of the most surreal scenes, he has a son with his girl friend, Rima, while traveling through a kind of time warp. Rima leaves him for his old enemy, Sludden, but Lanark continues to soldier onâ€”as always hoping to one day experience “light”, although he may not be certain what “light” means.
Gray purposefully divides his novel into four “Books”. However, he begins with Book Three, the first Lanark section. The most pragmatic reason for this chronological dislocation is to introduce the reader to the fantastical underworld of Unthank first. The novel must exist within the fantastical frame. Given the intensely realisticâ€”even grimly soâ€”quality of the Glasgow sections, the surrealism of Unthank would be too jarring to the reader. Instead, Gray takes the calculated risk that the realistic sections will seem more integrated if they occur later. In a perverse sense, Gray, by using this order, makes the naturalistic scenes fantasy because they are fantasy to the inhabitants of Unthank. It is, perhaps, a truly alternative interpretation to think that Glasgow is the hell and Unthank the reality.
Lanark has been called many things by many reviewers. Anthony Burgess praised it as a masterpiece. John Crowley and Michael Dirda (to a lesser extent) both praised the book’s tremendous vision and the brilliance of individual scenes, while criticizing the increased allegorical content of the novel’s latter half.
The novel does veer toward abstraction in Book Four, the ratio of dialogue to exposition increasing dangerously. Gray also devotes a chapter to cataloging Gray’s theft from long-dead writers. While the chapter displays Gray’s signature wit, it slows the momentum of the narrative.
But in the case of Lanark, such criticism is largely irrelevant for the same reason that criticism of the whaling chapters in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is irrelevant. The correction of these “flaws” would rob both books of their unique genius. The hallmark of an original, eccentric writer is that what makes the writer different, even in a maddening sense, cannot be separated out from what makes the writer good. Gray’s rough edges are the rough edges of what can only be termed prophecy.
More importantly, in terms of the fantastical content, Lanark provides a unique example of the use of fantasy in a social commentary. Unlike Animal Farm (1945), Candide (1759), or Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Lanark is not intended primarily as parody, satire, or parable.
Whether in Lanark or faux Victorian romps such as Poor Things, fantasies of the mind like 1982 Janine (1984) or via the futuristic satire of The History Maker (1996), Gray writes “regional” literature with such ferocity and skill that it transcends its Scottish origins to become universal. If Gray tends to incorporate fantasy or science fiction, he does so to make full use of all relevant toolsâ€”and because such elements of an unshackled imagination represent the writer’s own seeking of the light. Although not a surrealist, Gray does ascribe to the idea of convulsive beauty: beauty, even grim beauty, in the service of liberty.
If discussion of Gray’s work begins and ends with Lanark, it is for the simple reason that all of his other fiction exists within the borders of its imagination. The black sense of humor, the obsession with social injustice, the difficult acts of communication between the sexes, the homage, even in altered form, to Glasgowâ€”all manifest themselves fully in Lanark. The novel represents the absolute limits of Gray’s eccentricity, postmodern inquiry, and what can only be termed a kind of rough genius. No writer should have to live up to such a book. That Gray has produced other novels almost as profound indicates a remarkable tenacity on the part of the author.