(1934-2019) Scots author, artist and playwright whose fiction repeatedly engages with the modern Matter of Scotland and crosses genre boundaries without ostentation or embarrassment. His books are distinctively illustrated and designed – including cover art and typography – by AG himself, with the design itself sometimes integral to the machinery of Story.
His long debut novel, Lanark: A Life in Four Books (1981), interleaves the life of its Glaswegian protagonist Duncan Thaw (containing fictionalized autobiographical elements) with a posthumous progress under his True Name Lanark through the Afterlife realm of Unthank, a version of Hell. In this darkly distorted Mirror image of the City of Glasgow, psychological defects – or flaws in the Soul – appear as physical afflictions with a symbolic force recalling Hieronymus Bosch. Schizophrenic withdrawal, for example, becomes a retreat into the literal armour of Dragon shape (see Metamorphosis). Different regions of this afterlife world run on different clocks and are separated by "intercalendrical zones" booby-trapped with Time-in-Faerie pitfalls. Fantastic and intractably mundane elements are effectively mingled throughout: a dull-seeming bureaucracy, whose unhelpfulness lies halfway between reality and Franz Kafka, proves to be processing disease-transformed people into food (to the sinister refrain "Man is the pie that bakes and eats himself") and into strange, monstrous munitions which are transported along familiar motorways. Lanark teems with energy and has an epic power.
Unlikely Stories, Mostly (coll 1983) contains some notable Fabulations and a Recursive-Fantasy errata slip: "ERRATUM. This slip has been inserted by mistake." In the two "Axletree" stories the hubristic building of a Babel-like Edifice to pierce the sky results in a vast Flood of natural rather than divine origin. Also included are The Comedy of the White Dog (1970 Glasgow University Magazine; 1979 chap), a darkly comic fable of Sex, bestiality and Transformation, and Five Letters from an Eastern Empire (1979 Words Magazine; 1995 chap), a surreal political nightmare in which Oriental officials command atrocities without accountability, since the orders notionally come from an emperor who is a literal Puppet.
The first half of 1982, Janine (1984) develops into a tour de force of typographic excess as the thoughts and often very funny sexual fantasies of the whisky-sodden narrator – in process of committing suicide via overdose – are shown fragmenting into complex, compulsive patterns on the page. In margins and corners a tiny voice intrudes, eventually arguing him back from the brink: it is God, or perhaps the narrator's conception of God. The book begins anew as his sober autobiography. Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D. Scottish Public Health Offices (1992; rev 1993) cheerfully inverts the Frankenstein theme by presenting a naturally monstrous but good-hearted student of anatomy who (although parts of the text and framing material metafictionally argue with this interpretation) reanimates a young female suicide with the brain of her own unborn child; there are also sly allusions to Pygmalion. Having bypassed the toils of childhood and puberty, the attractive "creation" views the Victorian world with devastating, Candide-like innocence; is sexually uninhibited (carried off by a stereotypically wicked philanderer, she hilariously exhausts him with her physical demands); and becomes a pioneer of Feminism. A History Maker (1994; rev 1995) promises a rousing tale of primitively fought war games on the Scottish borders in the 23rd century, but mercilessly satirizes its male Hero figure, demonstrates that women actually run this quasi-Utopia, and playfully conceals the true significance of the story in a seemingly skippable "Notes & Glossary". The author is fond of inserting such recursive commentaries, endnotes and critical analyses, not always reliable.
AG tells stories of great imaginative power in deceptively plain prose, underpinned by a political commitment to Scottish nationalism, with frequently expressed anger at the Thinning wreaked upon his Land and Glasgow by both local and English politicians. [DRL]
other works: The Fall of Kelvin Walker: A Fable of the Sixties (1985), Lean Tales (coll 1985, with stories by James Kelman and Agnes Owens), Old Negatives: Four Verse Sequences (1989), and Something Leather (1990), all associational; McGrotty and Ludmilla, or The Harbinger Report (1975 as BBC radio play; 1990), borderline-sf Satire; Ten Tales Tall and True (coll 1993).
About the author: Saltire Self Portrait No. 4 (1988 chap), autobiographical.
Alasdair James Gray