Wednesday, March 03, 2010


Normally it does not take long before the Monthly Book Group drifts off the book and on to other subjects. But this evening they started off down the highways and byways without even mentioning the book. We spent at least fifteen minutes discussing beers that they had brought – the Spitfires and Fursty Ferrets - and the beers they would have brought if they could have remembered the names – before polite coughs from your correspondent and the proposer gave way to less polite coughs and finally we turned to the book.

Which was “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by Mohsin Hamid (2007). The proposer had read it before a trip to the Indian sub-continent. Hamid was born in Pakistan in 1971, and had spent part of his childhood in the US where his father, a professor, was doing a P.H.D. He had returned to Lahore aged 9, but went back to the States at the age of 18 to study literature at Princeton, followed by a law degree at Harvard. A spell of work in a corporate law firm was followed by work in marketing, where his employer allowed him 3 months off per year to write. This led to his first book “Moth Smoke” (2000). He moved to London in 2001, and then back to Lahore in 2009.

He describes himself as a “transcontinental mongrel”. He started this book in 2000, re-wrote it after 9/11, and spent 7 years in total working on it until its publication. Speaking of its brevity, he said he would rather people read it twice than gave up half way through. The book had been a great success, winning 5 awards and being translated into 26 languages.

The proposer had found the book fascinating, and thought-provoking. The narrator’s dramatic monologue was quiet and courteous, and left your imagination to fill in the blanks. He liked the love story, and the wide range of emotions evoked by the book. Although the ambiguity of the ending annoyed some, he liked the way if gave scope to the imagination.

The book received a warm reception from the Group. The book was beautifully written, and cleverly constructed. “Compelling”. “Totally absorbing”. “It drew you in immediately, and was difficult to put down. Indeed it could easily be read in one sitting”. “Such a pleasure to read it”. “Delightful. Despite the weight of meaning, elegant and easy to read”.

The device of the “dramatic monologue” worked surprisingly well. It was as if he were there talking to you. It was quite a technical achievement not to allow the American to say anything in direct speech without creating a sense of artificiality.

It was particularly interesting in the context of the aftermath of 9/11 and its impact on Changez. We heard a lot about the impact of 9/11 on the Western world, but little about its impact on the Islamic world. And there was a lot of sympathy with the central message about how differently American behaviour was perceived in the East from Americans’ own perception of their actions.

The book seduced you, playing in to the liberal mindset (and Lahore was the most liberal part of Pakistan). He was saying in effect – look at me, I’m not an Islamist, I’m much like you, but I’m deeply fed up with America’s behaviour. The thrust of the book was that the US was ignorant, and the point of the book was to educate.

The names of the characters flagged up some of the themes Hamid had in mind. “Changez” – based on the French for change. “Erica” was short for America, and you could read the character as a metaphor for America, and the book as an allegorical fable. Was Chris short for Christian? And so what about the fact that Erica could only have successful sex with the narrator if she imagined he was Chris – a white American, no doubt Christian? Underwood Samson and Co has the initials U.S.A.Co. And “Juan-Batista” was Spanish for John the Baptist (who asked people to repent of their sins, perhaps such as working for a heartless capitalist company?).

However, while noting these games with names, most felt that the character of Erica and her story stood up as a substantive and poignant story rather than simply as an allegorical device. It was the most emotionally engaging thread in the book.

What about meaning of the last scene? Some felt the narrator with his liberal ideals would not be drawn into a murder, even if his interlocutor were an assassin. But in the end we agreed that all it was safe to assume was that violence of some kind was likely to result from the narrator’s activity in Pakistan.

Positive as the view of the book was, there were a few reservations. Some felt that the last quarter of the book was less compelling, less sharp than the earlier material, and the ending unsatisfactory. The pace dropped, Erica was off the scene, and there was a much more overt political polemic. And can you really trust a writer of fiction, who can control what does and does not go into his material, when he has a strong political agenda?

It was interesting that Hamid had said that a novel was often a divided man’s conversation with himself. That obviously applied in this book, much of which must be autobiographical, and which conveyed a degree of self-absorption. But perhaps most young men were self-obsessed? Well, noted one, the writer certainly came over as very intense in an interview that he had seen.

It was no surprise, suggested one, to learn that Hamid had studied literature. There were several nods to other writers: such as Fitzgerald, and his theme of people trying to re-create the past in “The Great Gatsby”; Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” – another novella told through a monologue; and Neruda, the values of whose love poetry might be contrasted with the heartless Underwood Samson, and who was also a politician.

Moreover, perhaps he tried rather too hard to spell out his themes in case critics missed them, both with the name games, and with passages such as:

“Such journeys have convinced me that it is not always possible to restore one’s boundaries after they have been blurred and made permeable by a relationship: try as we might, we cannot reconstitute ourselves as the autonomous beings we previously imagined ourselves to be.”

The theme of nostalgia for the past is central to Erica’s story, as she cannot move on from Chris, and also central to the inability of Changez to let go of Erica and to his desire to return home. But the author then tries to tie together his personal and geopolitical themes:

“America, too, was increasingly giving itself over to a dangerous nostalgia at that time. There was something undeniably retro about the flags and uniforms…”

This seems forced – America might be returning to type, but the idea that it was nostalgic seems introduced for the purposes of thematic symmetry. As with many other students of literature turned writer (a phenomenon developing in the twentieth century with the emergence of English as an academic discipline) such passages felt a little contrived, from the analytical left side of the brain rather than the intuitive right…

“Well I don’t know about contrived, but he is certainly very controlled. Look at how long Changez courts Erica before he even manages a kiss. He doesn’t seem a flesh and blood man…"

“ Indeed, he seems deeply inhibited, and some of the Pakistani middle classes are very reserved…”

“Yes” weighed in another in professorial tones “Can’t imagine him saying to Erica “Gie us a sh*g then, doll!’…

… and don’t put that in the blog!” he added demonstratively, sufficiently demonstratively to collapse the end of the sofa and fall off.

(The said sofa, reader, was one of those with a mechanism under one arm which usefully converts it into a chaise longue: particularly useful, for example, should you be sitting next to an Erica…)

So what, then, was the book really about? Fundamentalism? But although there was quite a lot about Muslim culture and countries, there was nothing at all about the religion as such, which is the basis of fundamentalism as most understand it. Indeed in an interview Hamin had suggested the fundamentalism he was writing about was that of the capitalist Underwood Samson, whose modus operandi was to “focus on the fundamentals” – the financial fundamentals - of businesses.

We concluded that the central theme was really that of America, and the damage that he had come to feel it was doing in its ill-considered and bullying foreign policies. “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” was essentially a title well chosen for selling the book.

(Err…isn’t that capitalist behaviour?....ventured your scribe, in a rare contribution to the debate, to be swiftly silenced by a few anti-capitalist glares. Oh well, back to scribbling and claret…).

He brought out well the fears of countries such as Pakistan, caught between Afghanistan and India:

“I had always resented the manner in which America conducted itself in the world; your country’s constant interference in the affairs of others was insufferable. Vietnam, Korea, the straits of Taiwan, the Middle East......Finance was the primary means by which the American empire expressed its power.

“You [America] retreated into myths of your own acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away …the lives of those of us who lived in lands in which such killers also lived had no meaning except as collateral damage”.

Arguably his views about India being wound up by the US to threaten a war of attack against Pakistan were rather neurotic, but it was illuminating to see the Pakistani perspective.

And then we left the book – surprise! – to go off on a tour of world politics, revisiting some of the sites visited in earlier discussions of the sub-continent (see for example the discussion of “Three Cups of Tea” in October 2008).

Interesting stops on our tour included:

- the thought that American policy was generally based on what it saw as its strategic interests (the Hamiltonian approach) but often dressed up in terms of some sort of moral crusade (the Jeffersonian approach). It was disappointing that, at least so far, Obama seemed to have bought into the same strategic views as his predecessor. In UK foreign policy you could also see a dichotomy between idealism and pragmatism (Castlereagh/Canning; Gladstone/Disraeli; Blair/Hurd);

- the observation that the effect of Partition had ironically been to marginalise the Muslim tradition and Pakistan, despite the fact that the Muslim tradition could claim to have been the dominant, most progressive and most tolerant cultural force in the sub-continent prior to Partition;

- the fact that English was written to a much higher grammatical standard in the sub-continent than it was in Britain nowadays, as could be seen in both newspapers and literature. Was it fanciful to imagine that in fifty years Indian sub-continent literature might have taken over from American as the major external influence on British writers? And it was always attractive to read books with a more varied setting than those offered by the London-based novelists’ staple offering of Islington and adultery…

Briefly revisiting the book, we speculated whether – much as we had enjoyed it – it would still be being read in fifty years time. The topicality of its subject matter and viewpoint had no doubt helped its current success, and the success of other books in this field such as “The Islamist”. But other books that had been written to meet a topical demand – such as the spate of books in 1929 about the horrors of the First World War - remained widely read classics.

And then we returned to the subject of refreshments. One was drinking the remnants of a Merlot left over from cooking a venison casserole. One had been on the Lafite 95 the day before (was it not rather young?). The proposer was quaffing the Wine Society’s Exhibition Central Otago Pinot Noir…

Your correspondent carefully turned his bottle to disguise the Co-op Claret label.

And then the settee collapsed again.

And that was it.

Introducing “Lanark” (1981) the proposer said that Alasdair Gray was born in Riddrie in East Glasgow in 1934. His parents had met on a rambling holiday, and his father worked in a cardboard box factory. Gray, together with his mother and sister, was evacuated from Glasgow to Perthshire in 1940, and then rejoined his father in Wetherby in Yorkshire in 1942. After the war his father could not get a professional job in Glasgow and had to take work as a wages clerk. Gray’s mother died in 1952, the same year he entered the Glasgow School of Art.

In 1954 he started writing sections of what became “Lanark”. He also wrote and published some of the stories collected in “Unlikely Stories, Mostly” (1957). In the decade after leaving art school, Gray sometimes worked as a teacher, sometimes as a scenery painter for the theatre, and sometimes lived on the dole. But he was always painting, and always writing. He painted many notable murals, not all of which had survived. An example could be found in the “Ubiquitous Chip” restaurant in Glasgow. It was odd that, amongst all his published work, there was not a book of his paintings.

In 1960 he joined the CND, with which he was still associated. In 1964 his son was born, and he made a television documentary, to be followed by a number of television and radio plays. In 1977 he was employed on a Job Creation Scheme as artist for the Glasgow People’s Palace, from which he soon moved to become “Writer-in-Residence” at Glasgow University.

“Lanark” was a “big’ book – big in ideas, big in reputation and big in weight. It was the longest of Gray’s works, and not the easiest. It was immediately seen as a great event in Scotland’s literary life when finally published by Canongate in 1981. Scotland’s resurgence of literature could almost be dated from the moment of its publication. Gray had been described as “the grand old man of the Scottish renaissance”, and it had been said that the book “detonated a cultural time-bomb which had been ticking away patiently for years”.

The proposer had chosen the book because he had read it when it first came out and felt that it had never quite settled with him – therefore he wished to re-read it. This time it had seemed more coherent.

So what did the Group make of “Lanark”? The discussion revealed a large number of contradictory views, and there was no real movement towards consensus. So a confusing – if not confused – discussion, perhaps rather like the book. Or was the problem that in Scotland we were too close to the book, and less inclined to grandiloquent judgements such as Anthony Burgess’ a “shattering work of fiction in the modern idiom” that Scotland “needed” by “the best Scottish novelist since Walter Scott”?

So it was a difficult (“unthankful”?) task for yours truly, the luckless discussion summariser.

A few, in addition to the proposer, were re-reading the book. Some found it more coherent and that it made more sense, fitting in with the less linear style of modern literature; others found it less coherent. Some felt Gray had been prescient in raising issues – such as globalisation, the role of multinationals and the environment - that seemed even more topical now. And he had captured the oppressive nature of large bureaucracies with which we were all too familiar.

Some in some moods got fed up with Thaw/Lanark – his inability to seize opportunities, his self-pity, his rejection of those who tried to help him – but in other moods sympathised with him. One who had found the book absolutely brilliant the first time round still found it still pretty good, with its imagination and range, but was more aware of the self-indulgence of sections such as the Epilogue, and the tedium of others. (Whereas another liked the Epilogue!).

Some were reading it for the first time (or completing it for the first time, after falling asleep during the opening section the first time). Amongst them there was the full spread of opinion.

One felt it was an outstanding book, containing everything you could want in a modern work. He could relate to the portrait of his early life as someone with whom nobody sympathised at school. The book dealt with the alienation of the individual and the destructive side of capitalism. It was also entertaining and witty. However, he acknowledged its inaccessibility, which limited its popular readership. It was a book more popular with the literati than the common reader, and perhaps not a book you warmed to.

One thought it was really pretty poor. Indeed he had decided to give it up if it did not improve by page 110, and had only kept going because of the relative improvement of the autobiographical Thaw story. But over the piece he did not like it at all. It was absurd, for example, that a writer should need to spell out in the middle of the book what his work was meant to be about (the passage about it being about the inability to love at both personal and societal levels).

But the views of most fell in the middle. Generally they liked the autobiographical Thaw section, but were less enamoured of the confusing fantasy sections (the same view taken by William Boyd in his introduction to the 2007 edition).

However, they recognised the book would be pretty ordinary without the fantasy “bookends”. These amplified and echoed Thaw’s problems in the imaginary world of Lanark. The character of Lanark was “Thaw on speed”. Eczema became dragon-hide, and he had (somewhat) more success with women. And portraying Glasgow as a sun-less world of nightmare was imaginatively convincing (but then a Book Group based in Edinburgh would think that).

For one it was a sad book – about a sad person, unable to engage successfully with the world, and escaping from the drabness of life on benefit in Glasgow into art and fantasy.

What then of the specifics? As autobiography, the book was distinguished by its honesty. It was an unflinching portrait of a misfit, of a dysfunctional individual with problems in relating to people, particularly to women and people in authority. Where so many autobiographies would boast about the protagonist’s remarkable charms with the other sex, this did quite the opposite, and even confessed to his sadistic urges towards women. It was also interesting as a historical record of West of Scotland life during and immediately after the Second World War.

The book would have been an easier read if it had started with the autobiography rather than the fantasy, but Gray’s ambition to follow the structure of classical epic and start “in medias res” gave the book a whiff of obscurity that impressed some (and depressed others).

The book was lightened by some welcome shafts of humour – for example portraying the Intercalendrical Zone as having signposts in the form of Scottish Motorway signs (with New Cumbernauld as hell). However, the science fiction sections were fairly derivative.

One reader found the second slab of fantasy much less powerful than the first, and felt the whole book went into a tailspin after Lanark meets the author. Meeting the author was an amusing idea - in a trendy, deconstructionist sort of way - but it shattered the coherence of the book. This disruption was compounded by the pretentious list of influences that followed, as the author became dazzled by the fool’s gold of his own brilliance. Before long the sombre, Kafkaesque intensity of Lanark’s life in Unthank had given way to a burlesque of international conferences and a Red Clydeside rant about the evils of the politico-economic system. The novel had lost its focus and fell apart as much as ended. (Hmmm…bit of a rant there too, perhaps?)

Ah well, but for someone else the critique of governments and businesses was the whole point of the book. The book was essentially a vehicle for a critique of capitalist society. And someone else found it particularly interesting to see what the influences on the writers were. Still no consensus!

However, most agreed that some rigorous editing would have helped the book – perhaps a book of about 400 pages would have been right. But who could imagine Messrs Thaw/Lanark/Gray accepting any editing whatsoever?

The artwork (particularly for the original dust-jacket, reproduced as the cover of the 2007 edition) found several fans. One member had found himself reading the book in the same Glasgow hospital that Thaw had gone to, and reported that the (male) nurses had licked the striking female nude on the cover (or did he say “liked”? Your correspondent’s hearing has been deteriorating due to the unusual noise levels at Easter Road this year…). Another member speculated that Gray’s greater talent was for art rather than fiction, and there was general dismay that his artwork and murals had received little attention and respect.

The book was conventionally described as a seminal work of fiction, which had sparked off the Scottish literary Renaissance. But, argued one, in what sense was it really a work of fiction at all? It was more like an autobiography – one half literal, the other half fantasy, but all about one person – Alasdair Gray. There was hardly an invented character of substance and complexity. For the hero to meet the author during the book took self-absorption to new and giddying heights, and the ill-judged “Tailpiece” in the new edition gave us a whole extra Q and A on the subject of me, me (and me)………Well, but wasn’t it in the nature of science fiction – and the Pilgrim’s Progress style of plot - to be more interested in ideas than characters? And weren’t Sludden and Marjory interesting characters?

And what was the influence of the book on subsequent Scottish literature? Who else was writing in a mixture of fantasy and realism? No one we could think of –other than that Ian Banks did so, but in separate books. Perhaps the influence was more indirect – “Lanark” had encouraged publishers to take up the work of new Scottish writers. And to be fair to Gray his role might have been better acknowledged if he had been the sort of relentless self-publicist some of his contemporaries were.

And did Gray achieve his ambition of giving Glasgow an imaginative profile to put it on a par with Paris, Rome or San Francisco? Well….err…………………no.

So were we left with a conclusion? Well, some – but not all - might sign up for describing the book as:

• derivative in many of its building blocks but brilliant in its construction, in its blend of fantasy and reality;
• but inaccessible because of its construction, despite being pretty readable in reality;
• strong and honest in its autobiographical section;
• very imaginative;
• yet self-absorbed and self-indulgent;
• very ambitious in its scope, but over-long;
• in summary, a work of flawed genius.

And now for some critical footnotes, in the best “Lanark” tradition.

1. Our empirically-minded scientific adviser notes that, while theses may have been written about the meaning of “Unthank”, and while some of us wondered if to “unthank” someone was a peculiarly Scottish form of put-down, there is a real place called “Unthank” not too far from Lanark. It is one of three such in the UK. The name has nothing to do with thanking but means “without leave” (from the old English “unpance”) and describes a piece of land occupied unlawfully. It was used in the context of pieces of borderland fought over between the Scots and the English. Therefore the name is perhaps appropriate in the context of the novel.

2. Meanwhile our medical expert reports that Gray refers to stasis asthmaticus when he should have said status asthmaticus. The root of the problem is anxiety, and m*st*rb*tion would be a good way to reduce anxiety. There is evidence that testosterone produced in m*st*rb*tion also helps in the transport of a hormone DHEA which might help relieve asthmatic symptoms. Certainly low levels of DHEA are associated with asthma. There is scope for further research.

3. One of our number reports that he was responsible for programmes for the unemployed in the West of Scotland at the time of the publication of “Lanark”. Was he therefore head of the Institute and thus Lord Monboddo?

4. Our musical adviser reports that “The Unthanks” are an English folk group from Northumberland, and include two sisters with the surname “Unthank”. Does this mean, he enquires, that the sisters have been unlawfully taken?

5. Our medical expert reports that, notwithstanding footnote 2, there is as yet no evidence that m*st*rb*tion cures blindness.

6. Our internet adviser reports a post on an Alasdair Gray website from a lady with dragon-hide legs. Far from being a disadvantage, she says that her dragon-hide legs have proved very popular on the Hounslow sex scene.

??.....Run that last one by me again...