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Holden Caulfield as Winston Smith

From Alasdair Gray's unproduced Lanark film treatment

Stephen Daedalus and Josef K. align their shadows. We follow that shape through Alasdair Gray's Lanark, a Life in Four Books, a 1981 novel that sticks the bildungsroman inside the dystopian parable as a blackout memory. In demonstrating the identity of these two genres, Gray bridges (at least) two islands in our experience.

“Lanark” is a young man hanging out in a coffeehouse, book in hand, in earshot of a clique that he's too shy to join, because it includes puffed-up hipster dudes and comely young women. “Lanark” (the word means an empty place, a clearing) is also the center of Lanarkshire, and then there's the planned community at New Lanark Mills, the ground zero of industrial socialism. "Lanark" furthermore seems like a drowsy attempt at the name of the city where he lives, a little farther down the Clyde, which is “Unthank” (un-think? un-thank?), a Glasgow under perpetual night that is literally eating itself – human beings are converted into joules of energy, for the better districts, and a plague-inducing sludge to be dumped near the tenements. More specifically, the process of converting people into energy requires first converting them into dragons who are imprisoned and tormented in a spirit mill called The Institute, until they explode from spontaneous combustion, the only kind of spontaneity or combustion you can get in Glasgow I mean Unthank in the last stages of its history. (One of the dystopian implications of this fable is that having burned up biomass from the Devonian onward, we have no fuel left but the surplus laborers. It's a Modest Proposal for the industrial age.)

This is all in Book Three of the novel, which begins on the first page. One hundred and twenty pages later, we rejoin Book One in progress at Chapter 12. A new Book in the scheme of Lanark is like arriving in a new city whose clocks are out of sync with the city of departure – sometimes years out of sync. Books One and Two are a coming of age novel set in Glasgow after World War Two. The protagonist, Duncan Thaw, is a sensitive and self-centered boy with a talent for drawing allegorical murals – one of his many resemblances to the real Alasdair Gray, whose pen drawings, which combine technical design and altarpiece, don't so much “illustrate” Lanark as suggest ways of looking at its four-panel structure. The stage of life Duncan Thaw reaches by Book Two, as an art-school dropout, is the lowest and most inescapable circle of Hell, because it's the realest.

During childhood we live in an Enlightenment: the purpose of life is learning without end. This makes up for the childhood our elders didn't have, but once we've had it we have to throw it back and become just like them, anyway, or they will feel rejected. (Here I'll pause to note that the expectations from Thaw's father, a good-hearted shop floor socialist and Shavian atheist, are mixed signals around intellectual prestige and working-class pride. Unless you count Marxism, there's no religious heritage to be reckoned with, and it isn't missed, the way Dostoevsky thought it would be. That's one of the reasons Lanark feels contemporary.) Carrying on this generational narrative means we're supposed forget science or music and report to the factory and add to the population explosion. Not that our presence is really necessary, we can always choose to slide into the gutter and be burnt for fuel. Leviathan itself – Hobbes' Leviathan in various guises is one of the novel's core images – Leviathan itself doesn't act as if it craves one more prole, or soldier, or manager. Actually it thwarts our least effort to work or reproduce. One becomes trapped in oneself. One could respond by allegorizing the forces that can't be grabbed, by turning urban life into a mural. (Thaw is trying to paint a church mural in the story within a story, but it's a mural of secular life – the epic of the Clyde river.) The book insists on both the tunnel of post-adolescence and the alps of nightmarish whimsy on either side of it. The reader, like the hero, has to review both landscapes to reconstruct the whole journey.

One could decide that, in the nervous breakdown that ends Book Two, Duncan Thaw commits suicide. He then wakes up as citizen “Lanark” in a Purgatorial afterlife called Unthank in Book Three, where the reader enters. When he is making his way out of Unthank (by forming a bond with Rima, the woman who caught his eye in the cafe), he is reminded of his sin of despair by a review of his earthly life as “Duncan Thaw.” This precedes his ascent to a higher stage of Purgatory, namely Edinburgh (called “Provan”) in Book 4. This reading, however, puts a weight on cause and effect which Lanark keeps shrugging off. Among its culminating revisions of Mr. Lanark's circumstances is his encounter with Mr. Nastler, the novel's “conjurer,” who offers his own explanation of the relationship between Holden Caulfield and Winston Smith: “My first hero was based on myself . . .mine were the only entrails I could lay hands upon. I worked poor Thaw to death . . . his death gave me a chance to shift him into a wider social context. You are Thaw with the neurotic imagination trimmed off and built into the furniture of the world you occupy.” Mister Nastler (nasty Alasdair?) wants to merge figure with ground in fiction as fluently as he does in his Holbein-like drawings.

An early reviewer of Lanark, the novelist William Boyd, who also introduces its 2016 edition, found the quasi-autobiographical coming of age zone the most engaging to read while in my experience it was the reader's darkest valley. All the same, I was pulled through this section, as other readers have been coaxed through the parts about dragons and flying machines, by Gray's voice – what Janice Galloway describes as his “clarity, brinkmanship and near-childlike sincerity of tone.” It's a more entertaining book than I'm managing to suggest here – a majestic, heartfelt, and ingratiating version of the science fiction mock epic found in Slaughterhouse Five or A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; plus it's The Catcher in the Rye, plus it's more than the sum of those parts. What strikes me on this first encounter is how old-fashioned the frustrated young man persona comes across in 2018 – maybe because I'm too old for it, or maybe because career and marriage and the other walls closing in on the bachelor no longer feel solid in 2018 – and how Gray's novel, without trying to repair or rebuke the bachelor and the crisis he expresses, puts him into fresh contexts, and gives him a chance to transform into something else.

It would be misleading the reader to suggest that Book Four, in which Lanark escapes from the Institute, becomes a husband-like bloke and a father, and then a politician, serving as Unthank's reform-party delegate to the council of dystopian cities, is a happy ending, or even an ending that conventionally follows from the preceding mash-up of Dante and Joyce and Wyndham Lewis. It's perhaps another facet of the soul we know through parallel incarnations; another alternative, in a novel that feels no obligation to have the last word. It's also a disaster movie, in which Lanark and his family are fleeing an ecological crisis that is too big for a politician to fix. Dark or strange as it all is, I was moved by its cumulative suggestion that the bachelor-outsider figure is our Beowulf. He is suited for the highest stations of life, because as the fans of Compson, Caulfield, Portnoy, and so on know, he's seen the worst, yet his insecurity– if not his body, credit rating, or police record – is incorruptible.

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