Tales from the bunker
In Scottish writer Duncan McLean’s latest novel, he prods at the dark underbelly of human nature. He tells Kathleen Morgan why.
Duncan McLean is using the same gentle, north—east tones to describe his new book as he did when his debut novel was published last year. Only this time. he talks of anal sex. murder and rape, not Lewis Grassic Gibbon and rural Aberdeenshire.
The first few pages of Bunker Man promise the same no-nonsense language and couthy descriptions of small-town life as Blue/(den. It soon becomes apparent McLean is on an entirely different trip this time. Having lulled his reader into a false sense of security with his portrayal of a newly-married couple. wrapped up in their own cosy. sensual communion. he shatters the reader‘s expectations. ‘1 wanted to get away from creating a monster on the ﬁrst page of the book. because that‘s too easy.‘ he says.
Anyone who has read the Orkney-based writer‘s collection of short stories Bucket 0f Tongues, will know he is made of sterner stuff and suspect that having satisfied himself with his charming story of adolescent angst in rural Aberdeenshirc. his imagination would be straining at the leash. Like many of McLean‘s short stories. Bunker Man explores the gritty bits of human nature even McLean
feels uncomfortable discussing. Exposing madness, misogyny and society‘s obsession with outsiders. the novel is meant to leave a bad taste in your mouth. it does.
Speaking from Virginia, where he has been researching his next book. a celebration of country and westem music. McLean makes the obvious comparison. ‘lf you look back to a lot of the stories in Bucket of Tongues. they are pretty damn tough.‘ he says. ‘Quite a lot of them came out as nasty stories. others were a gentler kind of thing. in Blue/(den l explored the gentler side. After that. i wanted to go into the darker side.‘
The bunker man of McLean‘s novel is a lonely. dishevelled character — probably a former psychiatric patient - living in a clifftop wartime bunker on the
Duncan McLean: ‘The story is sacred'
outskirts of a north-east town. The archetypal outsider. he inevitably represents a threat to the small community.
New to the town and recently married to Karen. Rob is head janitor at the local secondary school. Preoccupied with the Bunker Man who has been seen hanging round the school grounds. he elects himself guardian angel. But McLean‘s angels have dark secrets under their robes and as the book's moral boundaries melt. so begins a tale of sexual manipulation. cruelty and descent into insanity.
in Virginia for the last three months researching his book on western swing — a strand of country and western — McLean has been isolated from any pre-
‘l’m a bit nervous about what people will think . . . this is a plot-driven, nasty book.’
publication reaction to Bunker Man. He admits he is slightly anxious: ‘l'm a bit nervous about what people will think. Blaekrlen is a likeable book. but l don‘t think a lot of people liked it very much. I'm interested in doing something different every time - this is a plot-driven. nasty book.‘
McLean is uneasy about discussing some ofthe book's more graphic descriptions — in one of the more disturbing scenes. at hard-bitten fourteen-year- old girl is pressurised into having anal sex on a lonely beach. ‘At the time. it wasjust what had to be written,’ he explains. ‘The story demanded it: the story is sacred.‘ He does. however. reveal his influence — Dostoevsky's The Eternal Husband, described by McLean as: ‘murder, suicide. child abuse. poverty. drunkenness. madness. all in a quick succession of pages.‘ For him. there is no comparison. ‘lt's incredible: far more hom'ble than Bunker Man‘.
Bunker Man by Duncan McLean is published by Jonathan Cape at £9. 99. McLean will be reading and signing copies of the book at Watersmne Zr, 83 George Street. Edinburgh at 7pm on 6 June.
Carol Shields: boxing clever
‘Pulitzer Prize winner Carol
Shields . . .’ This predictable opening gambit is the sort of line that spooks the genial Canadian author who was last week awarded the audacious Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1995 for her extraordinarily beautiful book The Stone Diaries.
Chatting about this literary scoop from the comfort of her work-room at the University of Winnipeg, Shields’ soft timbre rises a couple of octaves as she explains the surprise win. ‘I was stunned. It was totally out of the blue,’ she says. ‘I think I thought that someone had won it already. You know I was sitting next to a lournalist at the ceremony who told me, “This goes with you to the grave. It (the Pulimr)
‘ becomes the first line in your
obituary.” And that spooked me a little,’ she laughs.
Reading either The Stone Diaries or 1977 novel The Box Garden -
published in the UK for the first time this month - it is in fact the reader who is ‘spooked’ by the beguiling beauty of Shields’ prose. As an author who confesses that ‘my plots aren’t very exciting’ Shields manages to cast a siren-like spell that hypnotically draws the reader into the ordinary lives, loves and frailties of her identfiable characters. Take for example Charleen Forrest, the main protagonist of The Box Garden. On a superficial level we are presented with a woman whose husband has left her, who ekes out a living writing for a Botanical Journal and whose kindred spirit is the mysterious Brother Adam with whom she trades botanical hints via their letter-writing relationship. Not the stuff of racy-reading one might suppose, yet Shields excels at uncovering what she defines as ‘life’s misconnections and missed opportunities’. Iler skill lies In
transforming the gamut of everyday human feelings into incandescent poetic gems that resound in the reader’s head for weeks afterwards. To probe Shields about her character’s ‘ordinariness’ elicits a piqued response. ‘l’ve never known what that means,’ she says. ‘It is a problem because it seems to me we’re all ordinary . . . I guess I’ve lived an ordinary life. I’ve lived right in the middle: growing up in a suburb, having a happy childhood and a life completely free from violence.’ Though any recipient of the Pulitzer, is by definition not ‘ordinary’, Shields puts her win into self-depreciating perspective with a chuckle. ‘You know this also happens to be the week we lost our hockey team, which is more important to the people of Winnipeg.’ Carol Shields may assert her ‘ordlnary’ status but she posesses an extraordinary talent. (Ann Donald)
76 The List 2-15 Jun 1995