Vintage Bookends: Duncan Thaw’s Excellent Adventure

The 1981 novel ‘Lanark’ has been referred to as the ‘Scottish Ulysses’

Lanark
Bryan G. Chen

“Lanark,” Alasdair Gray’s hefty first novel, is often called the “Scottish Ulysses.” The term is a reductive one, a kind of shorthand for any book that comes from the edges of the British Isles, documents the internal struggles of a young man, and experiments heavily with form. Granted, this may seem like a rather limited class of books; but no category, however specific, can hold this novel: though Gray—as much as any modern writer—owes a debt to Joyce, “Lanark” is profoundly a product of its own time and place.

Gray, a self-described “fat asthmatic Glaswegian,” began writing his book as an art student in 1954. In a 30-year display of what can only be called tenacity, Gray continued to work on the 500-page novel until its publication in 1981. Perhaps Gray had an unusually strong sense of faith in his project, one that allowed him to push on where many writers would have quit.

Then again, perhaps his persistence was rooted in the sentiments of his protagonist, Duncan Thaw, an angst-ridden young painter who observes that “Someone might work and work at a thing, not because they were encouraged, but because they never learned to enjoy anything else.”

The story of Duncan Thaw is, in many ways, an exploration of the artist’s life. We meet Thaw as a small boy, already drawn to the world of crayon and paper. Our introduction to Thaw’s world finds him quietly, childishly, absorbed in creation: “Duncan Thaw drew a blue line along the top of a sheet of paper and a brown line along the bottom.”

We follow him throughout childhood, a time punctuated both by the drama of war and illness and by the monotony of school and girls. The gritty realism of Gray’s writing persists through his sketches of unlikable characters, ambiguous moments, and unsatisfying conclusions: Thaw’s early love affairs, for one, are not simply tragic or unrequited, but rather attempted, abandoned, unresolved, and forgotten, with none of the conclusive flair that readers have come to expect in a novel. Such literary decisions culminate in a story that is all the more compelling for its seeming incompleteness.

Interestingly, Gray chooses to enclose this achievement of realism within a frame narrative that is pure fantasy. The story of Lanark, a young amnesiac who inhabits a strange, dystopian world, neatly bookends Thaw’s. The two narratives never directly intersect: to Lanark, Thaw is only a character in a story told to him in a hospital (admittedly, a story that takes up two hundred pages).

Yet, it is Lanark who seems the more unreal of the two. His life, in some ways, draws a hyperbolic counterpart to Thaw’s: where Thaw suffers from eczema, Lanark contracts a horrific illness known as dragonhide. Where Thaw’s Glasgow is a dreary, workaday city, Lanark’s surroundings are a dehumanized industrial nightmare. The tales of the two men stand well on their own; read together, however, each story illuminates the other, calling out to each other across the borders of narrative to create a single masterpiece.

It is this depth of creation that makes “Lanark” more than simply a good read—it is an experience to be entered, questioned, and explored. Gray, an artist whose murals and paintings can be found throughout Glasgow, also illustrates his own books. His artistic sensibilities also lead him to experiment with fonts and typesetting, lending a visual component to the written word. Descriptions of dinner are laid out across a page as if the words were dishes upon a table; God (or is it the author?) speaks in the margins. Perhaps most notoriously, Gray often engages in bouts of metafiction throughout his novels: in “Lanark,” he arranges a meeting between character and author, compiles a list of largely nonsensical footnotes, and inserts an epilogue a good eighty pages before the end of the book.

These antics have led some to dismiss Gray’s work with various po-mo epithets and move on. However, his writing has been critically lauded. “Lanark” is one of Gray’s most famous—and best—works to date. Dedicated readers who accept the novel’s quirks can expect swift and generous returns from the skilled hand of a unique and powerful writer.

—Reviewer Catherine L. Tung can be reached at ctung@fas.harvard.edu.

Lanark: A Life in Four Books
By Alasdair Gray
George Braziller
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