JAMES KELMAN FEATURE
soldiers gamely on. not being one to wallow in his own misfortunes, but panic keeps catching him unawares and as the days go by things don’t seem to be getting any better.
It’s a dense. quietly scaring. occasionally comic tale. magniﬁcently and meticulously constructed from Sammy‘s own immediate. sightless perspective. I ask Kelman about this ‘stream of consciousness’ narrative technique. and he quickly picks me up on my glib terminology. ‘l reject that stream of consciousness label.’ he says. ‘lt’s convenient. but it can disinform and misguide about what the actual process is — it leads people into assuming that the writer writes in a kind of stream. so I get academics who should know better asking me. “Do you ever revise your work?” That’s an outrageous thing to say to any writer — even if it reads like that. it should be obvious that it's because the writer is using syntax and rhythm in a very precise way. and has worked laboriously to achieve that.’
‘Even if it reads like “a stream of consciousness”, it should be obvious that it’s because the writer is using syntax and rhythm in a very precise way, and has worked laboriously to achieve that.’
It‘s an important point. not only in terms of acknowledging the labour that‘s gone into the writing. but because the resulting step-by—step delineation of Sammy’s thought-processes also reflects with minute immediacy the labour /I(’ has to put into\every single thing he does — getting his messages. heating up some soup. sawing the head off the mop and painting the handle to make a white stick. llis blindness acts as a kind of magnifying glass for all the details which make up each hour. each day.
‘l’ve no experience of being blind. and the only way to do it as a writer is to go with the sensory perspective. the very concreteness of reality for someone in that situation who isn‘t rich.‘ Kelman explains. ‘The life of the character. that sort of movement. or current. comes out through paying attention to the concrete. just going about the business of the character. When something‘s as laborious as that. you’re aware of the danger of it being boring. but your job is to find ways of making sure the actual words on the page and the formation of sentences keep the reader following.’
In this case it‘s the location of perspective right inside Sammy‘s head which provides the novel with much of its tension: most of the time the reader‘s awareness of what’s going on is precisely the same as Sammy‘s own. ‘That really helps the dramatic dynamic. it does make mystery.’ Kelman says. ‘liven if the character just suddenly says “What the hell is that?" — he’s maybe heard a noise. or the doorbell’s gone. but if you‘re not using indirect narrative. the reader can only find out as the character does. so the drama’s heightened.‘
The vividly intensified focus enabled by Sammy’s blindness also gradually makes clear the fact that his experiences would not be all that different even if he weren’t blind. For someone in his situation — largely alone. with no work. very little money and therefore very little sense of his time as possessing any value -— simply moving on through the hours and days demands considerable inner exertion. ‘You battle on.’ he says more than once. but as you watch him battling. you become increasingly conscious of him getting closer to a kind of terrible existential void: should his will to keep going fail >~ and there’s little discernible reason why it shouldn’t -— his sense of himself and his existence as muttering in any way at all could very easily dissolve into nothing.
When l spoke to him. Kelman had recently been sent an early review of the novel. which referred to the world it describes as a ‘dystopia’ — defined in the dictionary as ‘an imaginary world where everything is as bad as it can possibly be’. He appeared to derive a certain amount ofgrim. vindicated satisfaction from this unwitting demonstration of crass (dictionary definition: ‘grossly stupid. tactless or insensitive‘) critical attitudes hellish they may be. but the kind of circumstances he‘s describing so minutely sure as hell ain’t imaginary; that's the whole point.
Hellish they may be, but the kind of circumstances Kelman is describing so
minutely sure as hell ain’t
the whole point.
"fake the bits where he has to get to the DSS. for instance.’ Kelman says. ‘lf you live in Drumchapel. say. you have to go and sign on down at Anniesland [two or three miles away]. and if you don‘t have any dough — and you might not have much food either — the chances are you' ll have to walk. There are no problems more major than that kind of thing for someone who’s on the broo; ordinary life to that extent is full of drama. and potential tragedy. all the time. full of that kind of incredible struggle.
‘I always used to make this kind of point with these literary prizes ~ there was one time in particular. I’d been asked down to London because I’d been shortlisted. and I actually went through all this very laboriously on the phone. “How do I get there?" That took them aback. somebody asking how they got from Glasgow to London. it eventually got to the point of me having to say to them. “I have no money". And then it was. “It says evening wear. what do you mean by that. what do I wear?” So they said. “Well . . . evening wear”. and l had to say. “Yes. but what is that. and how am I meant to get it?” People saying. “Take a cab.” “Pardon?m
[I might be argued, looking at the publishers’ lists this spring alone. that the grounds for Kelman’s cynicism about the London lit—crit mafia were at least diminishing. New books out or forthcoming from major publishers by Alison Kennedy. lrvine Welsh. Janice Galloway and Agnes Owens as well as himself; then there are the big— league prizes awarded over the past couple of years to Alasdair Gray. Jeff "lorrington. Duncan McLean. It all cuts little ice with Kelman.
‘Writers using language from Scottish cultures are still not, as a rule. being appraised in the way they would be if they were English.’ he says. ‘Even the phrase “Scottish writing” is a disinforming one. because even the best known writers in Scotland just now are all using language in totally different ways. The only point at which it could really be said that the critical establishment was approaching a healthy situation. in other words was acknowledging reality. would be when all the different areas of linglish language — Afro-Caribbean literature. African literature. Australian literature — started to be appraised properly. with proper literary criteria. For that to happen the canon would have to be altered. the education process would have to reflect what was happening. and so on. and these things presuppose a contradiction — that one state institution can be libertarian and free while the other institutions remain oppressive. and elitist. and racist. Anglo-American literary
institutions will never include all these marginalised English-language-based literatures. without there being some
fundamental radical shift to do with imperialism and capitalism. I‘m still an exception. as are all these other people - we’re still only being admitted under the “exceptional” banner.‘ 1.] How lute I! War, How [we is published by Sec/(er & H'hr/mrg at £14.99.
The List 25 March —7 April 1994 9