Glad t be Gray
Steamier than Lanark, tougher than Something Leather and more preposterous than Ten Tales Tall and True, ALASDAIR GRAY is back with a real page-tumer. Craig McLean meets the author half-way.
insome females cling to the legs of muscular males. Nudity abounds. The clouds part before their mighty sky-chariot, their proud battle—standards leading the way. The air is thick with testosterone and oestrogen. Heroes and heroines, in perfect hormony. ‘Oh, deﬁnitely, yes,’ says Alasdair Gray. His latest novel could be a bonkbuster. Could smoulder on the airport
book-stands, its simmering passions and bawdy romps up there — and down there — with the Jilly Coopers and Jackie Collinses. Heck, what with all that heroic, manly warmongering afoot in between the sex sessions, it’s up there with Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, too. Kind of. If you squint hard enough. And discount the book’s sly political allegory; forget the dialectal, historical, cultural and philosophical bumf that forms the extended addendum ‘Notes Explaining Obscurities’; and ignore the grace of the prose that tells this most rippingest of
yarns. Yes indeed, no
mistake, as the jacket blurb so rightly has it, A History Maker is ‘a kilted sci-f1 yarn full of poetry and porridge, courage and sex’. The best- seller lists, day-time chat shows and Hollywood are there for the taking. Even if the bit about the porridge is a lie.
‘It’s more beguiling and more interesting for the reader if they get it packaged and arranged by me,’ says the author, sat in his favoured watering hole not far from his home in the west end of Glasgow. ‘There’s more to be enjoyed in it.’ So it is in the work of Alasdair Gray: plots, sub-plots, u-tums, left turns, left hooks, notes on the text, notes on the notesl, indexes of plagiarisms, bad reviews given equal billing with the good reviews, ornate illustrations, maps and legends, hidden messages, blatant lies, self- assurance, self-deprecation, tall tales, short cuts. in-jokes that are out to intrigue. The novel is rarely so, well, novel.
‘At the time I planned it, it was in the beatnik or ﬂower-power period of feeling - everything’s going to get
better because technology is going to
make everybody richer and nobody will need to do nasty work.’
The action in A History Maker darts back and forth across the rich countryside of the Scottish borders. It is the early years of the 23rd century, and the matriarchal, feudal bliss is sustained by polygamy, ritual warfare and towering ‘powerplants’ — imagine a trifﬁd crossed with a genie. Or Paul Daniels. You name it, the powerplant will supply it. In every respect, no
one wants for anything. Then our hero,
‘superbly muscled’ Wat Dryhope, encounters
‘fearfully seductive’ Delilah Puddock and her
manifesto of monogamy and capitalism. By
’. 4 , way of mind-bending drugs and torrid sex,
Puddock tries to convert Dryhope to her cause. Puddock, it quickly becomes clear, puts the ‘Tory’ in the ‘story’. Let battle commence . . .
Gray’s seventh novel started life as a
television play in the 605. It was born of its time, but its political resonances have gained stature over the decades. For Puddockz, read Thatcher3. ‘At the time I planned it, it was in the beatnik or ﬂower- power period of feeling — everything’s going to get better because technology is going to make everybody richer and
12 The List 4—17 November 1994
nobody will need to do nasty work. And of course nobody’s going to exploit it! It was the idea of imagining a culture in which plenty was no problem — there was enough of what anybody needed to live well without heavy toil . . . Originally. I had a much more pessimistic ending -— there it was the notion that in the long run, sheer male aggression, chiefly operating through the television network, would destabilise what had been a rather decent matriarchy. They would reintroduce scarcity to dominate others. And in writing the more modern version I thought. aw naw, things are too bad to be pessimistic! I wasn’t wanting the baddies to have it their way. But. of course, anything like a happy ending is kept to Notes On The Text.’
But, of course. Gray has never been one to make things easy for his reader, or for himself. His celebrated debut, 1981 ’s [mzark (A Life In Four Books), famously kicked off with Book Three. followed this with the Prologue, and slotted the Epilogue into the middle of Book Four. Towards the end the character Lanark — who is also called Thaw and is. in part. Gray himself — meets King Nastler — who is also, in part, Gray. And God. At one point Nastler hands Lanark a manuscript. Gray/Lanark/Nastler writes: ‘Much of it seemed to be dialogue but Lanark’s eye was caught by a sentence in italics which said: Much ofit seemed to be dialogue but Lanark ’5 eye was caught by a sentence in italics which said." Ponder that metaphysical corker for a minute and the room starts to spin.
For Alasdair Gray. challenge is the key. Lanark was almost 30 years in the making, its blueprint having been drawn up when he was eighteen. No London publisher would touch it, this sprawling, convoluted tale of giddy futurism
and urban realism, unless he split it into two, separate books. He refused, and held out. Small Edinburgh publisher Canongate came to the rescue. Now, even though he has a major London publisher and Canongate has had its own problems, he sticks by the latter, only working with Bloomsbury when financial