Lanark is a weird book.
Published in 1981 after 25 (!) years in the writing, Alasdair Gray seemed bent on creating the most unpublishable novel imaginable and still managed to capture interest from the Scottish artistic community—spurring many cryptic and whispered coffeehouse conversations about his sprawling mess of a thousand or more pages—and nabbing a publisher in the end after all. At least, William Boyd’s introduction to my edition gives this impression: Gray, the eccentric muralist, through the power of his wild beard, seemed to have radiated an air of plunging into madness while composing his lifetime masterpiece against the scoffing of those who thought his words would never see the light of day. I’m not sure if that introduction isn’t itself a metatextual device like just about everything in this book: there’s a significant section where one character works on a masterwork (a mural this time) that drags on and on in the process of creation only for the church he’s painting to get slated for destruction. Gray’s afterward does make it apparent that a good many publishers didn’t want to touch it before Canongate came along, but that also accounted for the length of writing and revision: the novel he shopped around first was much shorter and didn’t have most of the strangeness. While the final version wasn’t the rumoured thousand pages long, there is an entire world there that wasn’t initially part of Lanark.
Part of the attraction of reading anything by Alasdair Gray is that he designs the books as well as writing them, which leads to unique typesetting and illustration choices. On that front, Lanark is gorgeous.
As for the text itself, it’s a split narrative that starts with a man named Lanark who finds himself in the city of Unthank. Unthank is a picture of crumbling post-industrial urban decay in the middle of a dream world. Lanark has a skin infection that makes him slowly turn into a lizard, and things only get more bizarre from there. The opening (“Book Three”) has an unsettling “sinking into strangeness” effect since the city is unnamed to begin with and I initially thought it was Glasgow. Then Gray slowly defamiliarizes the place into a hellish bureaucratic police state in a floating, chaotic realm suffering from temporal dislocation where reality’s unstable and the universe is probably winding down to a close. This feeling only accelerates in the last chunk of the novel.
Smack in the middle of this (“Book One” and “Book Two”) is the novel Gray wrote first, the story of Duncan Thaw, a budding artist growing up in 1950s Glasgow. This bit is achingly unflinching in its portrayal of adolescence—though readers made squeamish by involved descriptions of masturbation probably won’t appreciate some of the places Gray goes here. It’s heavily autobiographical too, which accounts for the uncomfortable level of honesty. Thaw is not a pleasant person, and Glasgow seems just as much a hellscape as Unthank. While separate from the surrounding text it’s a deeply unsatisfying story on its own. All-consuming passion for a garbled artistic vision leading to suicide when that vision can’t be realized is, despite all the complex steps involved, a pretty standard plot for that sort of book. Only Lanark isn’t that kind of book at all even if it contains a bit that is.
Unthank is a mirror-split version of Glasgow, that becomes increasingly clear. Duncan Thaw and Lanark are the same person in different stages of life, different views of reality, their respective worlds settling and conforming around their outlooks. In the afterword Gray claims the Unthank sections are also autobiographical, but filtered through the deep absurdity he saw underlying the social structures he navigated throughout his life.
Lanark as a character is far more cipher-like and passive than his sexually frustrated Earth-counterpart. He’s eclipsed by the bizarre imagery Gray throws at us in greater and greater frequency, but he’s more effectual than the driven Duncan Thaw. After all, Lanark at least obtains some happiness and fulfillment in his life and despite being told over and over again how he is nothing, ends up bringing about change. Lanark balances Thaw’s story, reshapes it, infuses hope into a story structure that militates against such hope. We see someone enter an all-consuming nihilism but we learn that was never the right choice or even an inevitable one.
In either narrative, the show-stealer is the city. No matter how grotesque the events, the setting always comes out the worse: Glasgow/Unthank is a monster, its inhabitants are parasites, and the host thrashes and mutates from the irritation they cause. As a study of urban alienation I’ve yet to see anything like it, though Lanark’s relentless pessimism and disgusting imagery can grow too heavy in large doses—take the striking image of maggot-like parasites in one of Duncan Thaw’s dreams, so effective that the world becomes engulfed a gelatinous wriggling mass that soon consume each other until only one enormous worm remains. The people of Glasgow seem to fall under this rubric, devouring along the capitalist chain. Unthank falls prey to an even greater expression of this system—slated for consumption by other powers, other cities, ruled over by a corporation that’s bent on creating a corporeal existence.
If it sounds like a hopelessly convoluted and confused text, it is, any attempt to describe it will probably succumb to the same pressure. So much of Gray’s style here is meant to throw you off. We end with a cross-genre work that doesn’t seem to fit anywhere within the elements it lifts from the cultural landscape. There is an “Epilogue” a few chapters from the end where Lanark meets the author, who isn’t quite Alasdair Gray. In most other novels this is the clunky attempt at a postmodern device that would make most readers roll their eyes or scream, but here, it seems par the course in the great unravelling that leads into the conclusion. The author is quite clearly a blustering idiot. He says his work is important, decries science fiction and fantasy, then describes an ending to Lanark that doesn’t happen and, as Lanark points out, mirrors the climax of a pulp novel. The author’s words grow scrunched into a narrow column by an “Index of plagiarisms” filling up the margins. These cross-references seem genuine at first, until you start realizing they reference events that haven’t happened and even chapters that don’t exist. Lanark leaves this detour no more enlightened than when he entered it. You could excise the entire Epilogue and be left none the wiser.
But maybe not. Lanark is filled with so many moving parts it’s hard to follow the intricacies. This is not a novel that should work, and yet it worked for me. Lanark revels in its own futility and yet doesn’t seem futile; it’s saying something important, but it’s hard to place what, or rather, whatever messages this book has keep on changing every time I think about it. Lanark is a massively complex and deeply imagined work, and I can’t help but feel awed by it.