I have this weird thing with Alasdair Gray. When I think of him in an abstract sense, I think he's one of the best British writers alive. But whenever I'm actually reading
him, I always have this niggling sense that I'm not enjoying him as much as I think I should be.
Short-format pieces are probably not his forte, and even his biggest fan would have to confess that the quality on display in this collection is wildly variable. At their best they are fascinating and experimental. At their worst, they are shockingly, eye-gougingly, scrotum-tighteningly dull.
The best of the batch is probably his 1990 novel-in-stories, [b:Something Leather|973604|Something Leather|Alasdair Gray|/assets/nocover/60x80.png|958501], a deft character study in sexual awakening and Scottish class relations. But even here there are problems. Back when it was originally published, he speculated that critics might have understood it better if he'd called it something bland like ‘Glaswegians’ and cut all the dodgy BDSM. Now he makes good on that threat. The stories are indeed gathered as Glaswegians
, and in place of the infamous twelfth chapter we have the following full-page notice:
THIS REPLACES EIGHT PAGES OF SADO-MASOCHISTIC MALE FANTASY WHICH NOBODY SHOULD ENJOY.
This strikes me as a colossal mis-step. Poorly-disguised sexual fantasy is par for the course when it comes to fiction – almost all writers do it, and the worst it evinces from most readers is a roll of the eyes. But what is
genuinely problematic, not to say irritating, is seeing a writer who's embarrassed
by their poorly-disguised sexual fantasies. For god's sake don't go around apologising for what you've written, Jesus.
I think in general my favourite stories were the earlier ones, when Gray's writing was more obviously infused with fantastic elements: the best pieces here have an air of the unexpected to them, where the rules of social interaction and the laws of physics all seem dangerously fluid. Unfortunately the later ones devolve into increasingly heavy-handed and trite political fables. They're not even sophisticated enough to be fables: just conversations, really, where people stand around and talk about why socialism is good. By the end I felt like I was being clubbed to death with a pamphlet for the SNP.
What finally dragged it down from three stars to two is the shoddy presentation. This is particularly hard to swallow, since AG's books are, if nothing else, always beautiful objects. But I've never seen a book from a major publisher to have so many errors in it. And I'm not talking a few minor problems – it's the sort of quality you'd be annoyed at in a fanzine from a car-boot sale. Typos are everywhere – ‘pretned’ for ‘pretend’, ‘claves’ for ‘calves’, ‘stachel’ for ‘satchel’, ‘out’ for ‘our’, ‘form’ for ‘from’. Other words are run-on together. Sometimes lines appear to be missing, as in this paragraph:
She weeps at this, laughing and shaking her head at the same time. He embraces and kisses her, feeling stronger than ever, and for a moment she is almost overwhelmed.
her home after Sam leaves. Even so her mother, sitting before the television set, looks at her closely.
Elsewhere, lines are printed twice:
…straight dispersed my writings to their camerads outside for packeting up of raisins, figs, dates, almonds, caraway and other sweetmeat, while some did kindle pipes of tobacco with a great part while some did kindle pipes of tobacco with a great part thereof, and threw out all the remainder….
On one occasion an entire paragraph which obviously belongs at the top of the page is mistakenly printed at the bottom of it instead. There is even a confusion between its
. This is unacceptable; this is illiterate. Gray obviously put a lot of work into the illustrations and layouts for this book, and it's been ruined by fourth-rate editing. I don't know what kind of cuts have been hitting Canongate, but this is not good enough and I only hope the worst of it is corrected for the paperback edition.