Alphabet Soup Challenge – Author Edition – G – Lanark by Alasdair Gray

Genre: Scottish Fiction, Allegory, Metafiction

Narrative Style: Non chronological, Third Person

Published: 1981

Rating: 3/5

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Lanark can’t remember who he is or anything about his past. His most recent memory is a train journey which has brought him to Unthank, a place where the sun barely rises. He longs for the sunshine. He meets a group of people but is unable to connect with them. He longs for love but is unable to find it. Is there any way he can escape from Unthank?

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup – Author Challenge

I thought I’d enjoy this more than I did. In fact, for quite a bit, I thought this would be a five star read. I really enjoyed the first three books but then it felt as though it was never going to end. Maybe that was Gray’s problem – he couldn’t figure out how to finish things off.

The novel starts with Book Three and Lanark’s arrival in Unthank on a train. Anything before that is a mystery to him. Unthank is a land of darkness – the hours of sunshine are getting less and less. There is an entertaining episode where Lanark goes to register so he can get money which is Kafkaesque in its pillorying of bureaucracy. There are swipes at the authorial process when Lanark is encouraged to write by Sludden, one of a group of people who lounge around in a cafe all day, and then, after a painstaking description of the writing process, is told that what he has written is no good.

It is clear that Unthank is some sort of punishment – hell, maybe – for an incident in Lanark’s life before. This is supported by the fact that Lanark keeps asking women if he killed them. This becomes even more apparent when Lanark starts to develop dragonhide. (Other characters have equally weird ailments such as eyes or mouths all over their bodies.) He then finds himself in the Institute where once cured, he is made to become a doctor and cure others of the same ailment. When he manages to save a woman, he is given the chance to speak to an oracle and find out about his life before.

Now we are given Books One and Two – the life of Lanark before Unthank when he was Duncan Thaw. The style changes here. We are now given a – mostly – realistic portrait of a Scottish childhood and young adulthood. Thaw has always wanted to draw but finds he is thwarted in many ways. His parents want him to get a more sensible job. The focus is on money and living the same life that everybody else does which Thaw does not want. Even when he eventually gets to art college, he finds it provincial and depressing, pushing him towards a teaching career he does not want.

Thaw is prone to fits of depression, illness and hallucination. During one of these times, he may have killed a woman. As a result, he kills himself and this is how he has ended up in Unthank. Now, he is given the opportunity to leave the Institute and find a better future for himself and the woman he saved. But before any of that, he must return to Unthank.

This is where it started to go wrong for me. The allegory became increasingly complicated as did the satirising of bureaucracy. There were unending obstacles for Lanark. It ceased to be funny and clever, becoming annoying and increasingly post-modern. There is a section where Lanark meets the author of the novel and they argue over what the end of the novel should be. Included in this section are a series of footnotes giving all the other writers that have influenced the story, seemingly trying to head off any potential critics who pointed out allusions. All very clever, but not much fun to read.

By the end of this novel, I didn’t mind how it ended, just that it did. I was quite sympathetic towards Lanark in the beginning; by the end I was just hoping for his death and for it to be over.

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