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DESPERADO - Contemporary British Literature | There are two major directions in 20th century literature: the stream of consciousness and the Post-stream of consciousness, the latter being known as Postmodernism (including Post-Postmodernism as well)...


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British Desperadoes at the Turn of the Millennium

The Self-Consuming Dystopia of Age – Alasdair Gray (born 1934)


Portrait by VIC (Cristina Ioana Vianu)

Alasdair Gray was born in Glasgow in 1934. He is the representative of his native Scotland both in his literature and painting. Among other things, he wrote Lanark: A Life in 4 Books (1981), Unlikely Stories, Mostly (1983), 1982 Janine (1984), Something Leather (1990), Poor Things (1992), A History Maker (1994).

Whatever Desperado literature includes, Gray amply illustrates it all, for reasons that go beyond the fact that his imagination strives for experiment at a time when the experimental area has been fenced and the ‘No Trespassing’ sign has been stuck into it. Gray’s first novel, Lanark (1981), begins as an oppressive nightmare and ends by making us want to linger on in its universe. It is a dystopia which consumes itself, progressing from despair to acceptance. The horror consumes itself, leaving us in the end with a bright feeling that even the worst of worlds is inhabitable as long as we are alive, and death may very well not really exist. The narrative which tries to project us outside ourselves eats its own head, and we are left with the body of a book and of a world that we do not want to leave. It haunts us with peaceful certainty, feeding on its own death, which is the death of death, or, in other words, the beginning of rereading.
Lanark is the hero of a Life in 4 Books, whose order is 3, 1, 2, 4. The story begins in an imaginary world of the future, where Lanark arrives without memories, chooses his own name and starts a desperate and hopeless search for happiness. Everything is repelling and confusing. The letters of Lanark’s name could be rearranged as ‘carnal,’ and the meaning of the word is in fact the very opposite of what is happening slowly in the book: the heroes lose their bodies, transferring their flesh to something impalpable, their hidden soul, which they watch fiercely. Gray’s beings share nothing with the others, they are exasperatingly lonely creatures, starving, tormented by the need to feel.

The imaginary universe is baptized the city of Unthank, then the Institute, the intercalendrical zone, the city of Provan. In between these dystopic places, Book 1 brings Glasgow and Duncan Thaw, a painter and writer who committed suicide by drowning in the sea, thus landing in Unthank with his pockets full of seashells. The book begins and ends with Thaw melted into Lanark. He falls a prey to dragonhide, a disease that changes the body into a very thick shell, inside which the soul is a prisoner. The disease is caused, it seems, by the lack of sunshine, as the sun becomes a rare sight in this world of the future. Lanark is saved and healed at the Institute, where he also saves Rima, a girl he met in Unthank, and whom, as we find later on, he loved while in Glasgow, and may even have killed before drowning himself (the text is ambiguous here). The two have a son, Alexander, who grows by fits, while we are unaware of the passage of time. As a matter of fact, time is hidden everywhere, there are no clocks, but it is not abolished; it undermines all bodies and buildings, and in the end it kills Lanark, since Book 4 ends with an epitaph:


This short poem, a summary of the emotional life of the book, is followed by ‘GOODBYE,’ spelt in huge letters on the last, otherwise blank page of the book.

The story of Lanark – the newcomer, Sludden – the head of the gang ‘the Elite,’ and all the rest is fragmentary, told in the manner of Ulysses. The difference lies in the fact that we do not deal so much with meditation as with incidents, which are linked together by a masterful, painting-like geography of the imaginary world. The characters inhabit a masterful map, drawn in its minutest details, overcrowded with faces and places, like Gray’s own sketches.

When we first enter the novel, not knowing what we expect unless a good time of relaxation, we are baffled. We do not find scholarly complications, but we do not find anything familiar, either. Gray’s first effect is one of shock, because whatever it is that he wants to describe, he underlines that everything is illogical, or rather alogical. All logic we are accustomed to is defied, and the story builds its own rules as it goes along. The Desperado spirit becomes visible.

We find ourselves in an uncomfortable intellectual posture, partaking of a mind that defies and rejects all conventions, from chronology (which is not a new rebellion) to emotions (Joyce and Woolf cherished those). Enfant terrible of the Desperadoes, Gray mocks at whatever seems comfortable, and the consequence is an apparently dry text, which we must learn to enjoy, against our prejudices and expectations. We must learn to live with a writer who actually despaired of literature.

The story of Book 3 begins in a café above a cinema hall. Lanark comes in and meets Sludden and his gang. He does not know the first thing about this new world or its inhabitants. He is completely alone, and stays like this to the very end of the novel, not allowing himself to love anyone, except his son. All the way up to the end, here and there Gray uses shameful words freely, and talks about sex dispassionately. It seems to be a common feature of most Desperadoes, to force language into four-letter words and worse, without fear or danger of pornography. Sex seems to be a major topic here, but love is not, or rather, the largest issue at stake is the absence of love.

Another sign that Gray is part of the Desperado army of tricks is his utter disrespect for the reader’s eagerness to understand, to find the key to coherence. It is only at last that we do find coherence behind and beyond the air of science-fiction of the text. The label that dispels confusion may be dystopia. But until we diagnose that, we have a hero coming from nowhere that we know of, on a goods train, to a town where there is no light of day, where dawn lasts for two minutes at most. Unattached to anything, emotionally empty and materially floating in non-existence, Lanark chooses his name from a memory of a place mentioned on a picture on the train. The name can be squeezed for meanings, of course, one leading us to the word in his epitaph, ‘landmark.’ We have to accept Lanark without an identity, without memories, without any profession that he knows of. We have to accept his amnesic nightmare, in which his only occupation is to chase the dawn, to run like mad at the moment of light, only to lose it in a world of darkness. It could be the darkness of Desperado fiction, is still groping for rules.

The way people turn into dragons, and are either cured or die at the Institute at the core of the mountain, to be used for energy and food, arouses our curiosity in a sick way, peculiar to Alasdair Gray. The details which are the only explanation, such as the hole opening in Unthank and engulfing Lanark at his own request down the corridor of time, into the ward where he becomes a doctor after being cured, are stripped of any human emotion. Gray keeps his distance, the same as Ishiguro and most other Desperadoes, whether novelists or poets. The book is a continuous slip into the unknown.

Unthank is the beginning of forgetfulness. Whenever the light goes out, someone vanishes, as we later learn, in order to continue his or her disease, to become a dragon and possibly die of it. Rima becomes such a fabulous animal, enclosed in a huge shell, and is ready to die when Lanark kindles her soul back to life and they both leave the Institute on foot, to cross another portion of time and reach Unthank again. Gray’s beings are almost all the time ‘on the lip of a horrible pit,’ on the verge of something close to death but not quite it. The chain of mishaps forms and drags Lanark farther and farther away from the age he had when he first jumped off the train in Unthank. He keeps growing older without experiencing his ages. The disappearance of time is nothing to be thankful for, since growing old is a nightmare that cannot be stopped.

The torment of forgetfulness extends to language as well. At some point in the beginning, ‘Lanark tried to think of other words.’ The language of the whole novel, its style, is parsimonious. No word slips over the border of uncommitted neutre approach. No sentence suggests sympathy or pity. The words step all on the rope of a faked indifference.

Dragonhide, the disease which gives the affected limbs a will of their own, ‘spreads fastest in sleep.’ It also thrives on inactivity, but it seems that any kind of activity is harmful, since the group called the ‘protesters’ fight all businessmen, wanting to restore the sunlight and along with it probably the sense of time. Nothing helps, though, and Lanark, exasperated by his dragon arm, shouts, ‘I want out!’. A mouth in the wall opens at once, saying, ‘I am the way out,’ so he plunges into infinite darkness and travels to the bottom of the mountain. When he recovers, he finds himself in a ward with a screen instead of a window, and a clock that has twenty-five hours on it. A feeling of unreality pervades every corner of the novel and the lack of all human contact leads to dehumanization. Together with the right to a sense of time, everything vanishes: light, view, health, and above everything, love. The world which replaces reality is the fruit of what may appear at first morbid imagination. In time we realize that morbidity is the very weapon to fight death.

I hate despair!’, shouts Lanark, and it seems that the words define the whole story of his life. The author endows him with the courage to want to leave one circle of hell after another, from his real life to existence in a two-minute-dawn Unthank, then to dr. Ozenfant’s Institute. Ozenfant, the doctor who watches dragons burning into energy supplies, is a combination of the wizard of Oz and the French ‘enfant’, as it must be obvious. His emotions are simple and unambiguous: he wants to climb the social ladder and actually ends by becoming the twenty-ninth Lord Monboddo, head of the imaginary world of nightmares. He is not subjected to the empty dream most characters live. He does not fear the emotionless nightmare, and he never wants to leave. Constant threats are his power and his smile. He thrives on the hideous, which is so characteristic for Desperado texts.

Book 1 follows after Book 3, reinforcing the feeling that all life is a trap. An oracle retells Lanark’s previous existence as Duncan Thaw. Family, friends, possible lovers are even in real life disembodied, haunted souls. Somehow, except the horrible asthma, Duncan’s body vanishes, and an ugly mind is left floating, looking for memories, for attachment. The heroes, ‘lonely and magnificent,’ are repulsive and drown in a general solitude. Book 1, a portrait of the artist as an asthmatic, can be summarized as a collection of oppressive memories of childhood, a stifling present and an ominous future.

The third person narrative does not mislead anyone into thinking this could be a traditional novel. The sensibility behind this traditional narrative manner erects edifices of bitter, unpleasant emotions. The hero rejects himself and everyone else, all characters are inimical and the surroundings, even nature, are a constant menace. Duncan is a compulsive painter and cannot enjoy anything but his work, which is more like a curse to find and watch himself, than the joy of creation. The war in childhood, his mother’s death in adolescence, his torturing asthma, are part of a lightless life, perceived by the obscurity of his soul. The narrative is dry because the writer refuses to be involved in it, and consequently his voice, his style is dry, unemotional, leaving the soul hidden deep down, almost elusive to a hurried eye.

Duncan Thaw’s real life is even less appealing than life in science-fiction or Orwellian Unthank. There is no joy of life, there is no enthusiasm, not even the slightest trace of sentimentality. The writer loves his lovelessness. Duncan creates like Proust, despairingly yet hopefully imprisoned in his asthma and his solitude. He feels that ‘suffocation waited like an unfulfilled threat,’ making life seem a ‘punishment.’ At times, he almost goes mad with loneliness but will do nothing to change his life. The lack of air, his impossibility to breathe properly, cause a diminishing mood. Nothing is important any more, except his compulsive creation. As for the rest, we are all ‘big balloons of hate.’ This autobiographical Book 3 is written in the naturalistic vein, with accents from Joyce and D.H. Lawrence in it. Perception is depersonalized, the story of Duncan’s early life is grim all over. He dreams of writing a ‘Divine Comedy with illustrations in the style of William Blake,’ and becomes the prisoner of his own inferno.

Book 2 continues Duncan’s nightmare. Compared to Ishiguro’s delicate, subtle, decorous silence, Gray is rough, gloomy, scary. Thaw reads Huxley, but he finds him annoying:
‘He shows a world with too little in it to believe or enjoy.’

As a matter of fact, Gray’s own world is just that. Poverty is a burden which, as in Orwell’s 1984, darkens all worlds. Duncan is offered a scholarship at Art School, and he takes to painting dead bodies because

‘I want to like the world, life, God, nature, et cetera, but I can’t because of pain.’

His paintings are full of ‘ugly distortions,’ and even youth is a calvary. Genius ends in provoking death. The name ‘Lanarkshire’ turns up in a newspaper, linking the real and the after-real characters together. Life with asthma and without any joy in it is such a crushing torture that Duncan drowns in a state of torpor, after painting the mural of a church that was on the point of being abandoned. The real story ends thus, thoroughly depressing, after having discarded gloomy, stolid true life. The Desperado spirit has taken the lead.

Book 4 is a return to unreality, which in the meantime has become more engrossing, by contrast. Somehow, we have become immune to the brutality of both real and imaginary worlds. This fitful sequence of incidents is another Desperado device: Gray can very well build an alert plot, but he prefers interrupting it and feeding us fragments, ‘books,’ parts of the story. Curiosity is both confused and stirred.

Using ‘emergency exit 3124’ (which is the order of books in the novel), Lanark and Rima leave the Institute for Unthank. Wherever they go, Gray keeps imagining the unimaginable: a forgotten murder, a birth in a cathedral, people dying and being recycled into energy and food, intercalendrical zones which make the heroes age instantly. He furnishes the void with surroundings inhabited by people who are only half human, the other half having been wasted during their lifetime. They cry out in despair, knowing that something is lost forever, and get ‘dragonhide,’ which means they are built in that hideous, gigantic shell of dragons. The shell kills the human being, and life appears as a lonely race through and through.

Gray’s novel can be associated with quite a number of other books, mainly from the point of view of the images, the future he imagines. Orwell’s 1984 is one of them. Life is oppressive and doomed in both books. The humans are helpless and time crushes them. The telescreen does not offer the views of the screen in Lanark’s ward, and the political implications in Orwell are stronger. Yet, the oppressive atmosphere of the imagination is similar. The Desperado spirit is felt in both.

Huxley’s Brave New World also comes to mind. Unthank is aimed at ‘killing hope slowly.’ Huxley’s world is born without hope, and John, ‘the savage,’ a real human of the old times, brought from the reservation, cannot breathe in it, so he commits suicide. We have the same feeling in Gray’s world. When we start reading, the nightmare is so strong that we can hardly struggle free from it. We are compelled to submit to a stifling horror, and we are made to feel that, sooner or later, we, too, will become part of it. As we go along, the book suddenly charms us in a very devious way; we feel we would like to know more. Huxley does not have Gray’s Desperado skill at making our head spin, whether it be with too much complication or too much imagination. The horror is turned into delight by a feat of Gray’s despairing magic, and we are reluctant to leave the scene, which, unfortunately, consumes itself and leaves us agape.

Dante’s Divine Comedy, especially the Inferno, comes to mind. The souls of the beings we meet are so bitter and in pain, so solitary in their suffering, and Lanark himself is so oppressed by the darkness, that we feel they all have to go from circle to circle of hell, in search for a spot of peace – which they can never find, since Gray’s book does not go beyond the inferno of life, or whatever his imaginary world is supposed to be.
Kafka’s Trial, with its labyrinths, its maddening terror and utter loneliness is also a possible connection. Nobody listens to anyone, there is no available help, only ominous corridors everywhere. The feeling of nausea Lanark experiences all the time comes very close to Sartre, while his imagination flies in the footsteps of Wells; Gray has Wells’ delight in filling the unknown void with menacing acts and vistas.

These associations are caused by the quality of Gray’s imagination, mainly. While attempting to visualize the future – whether near or remote, he does not say – he comes close to most people who have done it, even to Swift’s Houyhnms, for that matter, except that his despair is so complete that we end by enjoying its perfection.
A few proofs of Gray’s haunting visions are the ‘mohomes’ (houses in a car, with a screen for mechanical games in place of the windshield), the ‘department of chronometry,’ the food made from human bodies consumed by dragonhide. Science has reached a frightening stage, where, instead of helping life, it feeds on it. Faint echoes from Sylvia Plath and Eliot float in the air. Someone hums, ‘measuring out our life with coffee spoons,’ which suggests the despondency, the emptiness of whatever human life might at one time in the future become.

With Desperado irony directed against the text which consumes itself, the last book introduces an author within the author. The king of Provan tells Lanark, ‘I am your author.’ What follows is a list of plagiarisms in the novel, a kind of Notes like those Eliot appended to The Waste Land, perverted, half made up, half misinterpreted. The author within the author is mockingly depicted, he is shown creating, the book is described in the making. Fowles’s Mantissa is one other example of an essay on creation. Many Desperadoes like to talk about the way they write, they like to split personalities and imagine themselves in the mirror, pretending to know less than they actually do. The king of Provan states that he is in the process of living Lanark’s story. The fact that he admits he does not know the future yet instils in the text a sense of absence, though not of loss, since there is no hope or regret, just emptiness.

The Desperado novel feeds on literature, the text devours other texts, reading invites rereading. The concern of the author is mainly intellectual, concealing emotions under a thick layer of tricks. In a way, this novel could be said to suffer from the disease invented by Gray for Unthank – dragonhide. It begins by patches of erudition and cleverness, and ends in a thick shell of innovation at all costs, which bursts open only when it is too late. Alasdair Gray does not go so far, though. His Lanark has the freshness of a painting, combined with the nightmare of a dry style.

We could consequently say that the Desperado spirit is an exacerbated awareness of past texts, which it uses cleverly, not emotionally or with limp irony, like Eliot. The art of indirect quotation is perfected upon. Gray thrives on sarcastic invocations of other texts, which he proves irrelevant in the end. The original is disparaged and the pride of each new creator swells like a dragon. Irrelevance becomes an attribute of all literature but that of the author in question. Gray feels alone in a world of useless words clustered in dragonhide, and his book is built on them. The word has lost, yet paradoxically has won everything.

The inability of the author to sound emotional is also of the Desperado kind. Imagination has gone dry, the soul can no longer be searched, psychology is hidden behind incidents, the stream of consciousness has somehow become useless, futile. The character Gray imagines as being the creator says:

‘I’m like God the Father, you see, and you are my sacrificial Son, and a reader is a Holy Ghost who keeps everything joined together and moving along. It doesn’t matter how much you detest this book I am writing, you can’t escape it before I let you go. But if the readers detest it they can shut it and forget it...’

The reader indeed feels a kind of rejection, he begins by reading unwillingly, because his better judgment prevails on his sentimentality, which is deeply frustrated. He does not read with love in his heart. Yet, this does not mean the death of loving reading, of the reader’s emotional involvement; I should call it its secrecy.

The conversation author-hero at the end of the novel is an essay on creation, in which the author within the author utters what the real author cannot bring himself to state. We suddenly realize that Gray is very much aware that too much resentment can kill a text, so he grants us an interview author-hero, which does not change much, except our state of mind, and this is a major achievement. We suddenly realize that whatever displeased us so far has dispelled, when confronted with the prospect of replacing our imaginary author (Gray) by a king of Provan, a stranger to our imagination. Consequently, the imaginary author is exposed and we are glad of that. We rejoice that the real author lurks behind him, and creates the ‘magic’ which is – as we perceive at last – the texture of the novel.

This magic stems from the fact that we are offered a forbidden view of a possible future of Earth and mankind. It no longer matters that Lanark ‘couldn’t remember what happiness felt like,’ that all there is to feel in this novel is just ‘pained emptiness.’ We realize that the author, just like his hero, is ‘locked in fear and hatred.’ It is hatred of all order and pattern, and what gushes forth out of it is a text that pushes literature beyond the stream of consciousness, into the realm of Desperadoes. All incidents are formally disconnected, though linked by the hidden flow of spiteful moods in the book. Fragmentariness has reached the stage of incoherence, disorder borders on chaotic lack of all rules, we are overwhelmed by a denial of the very idea of order.

The novel gathers ultimately around the age-old theme of death. Lanark prays,

‘give us all enough happiness and courage to die without feeling cheated.’

The novel, the same as the hero’s past, is a ‘muddle of memories.’ Before Lanark dies, the author gives us a clue to the mingling of the real and imaginary levels of the book:

‘First he had been a child, then a schoolboy, then his mother died. He became a student, tried to work as a painter and became very ill. He hung uselessly round cafés for a time, then took a job in an institute. He got mixed up with a woman there, lost the job, then went to live in a badly governed place where his son was born. The woman and child left him, and for no very clear reason he had been sent on a mission to some sort of assembly. This had been hard at first, then easy, because he was suddenly a famous man with important papers in his briefcase. Women loved him. He had been granted an unexpected holiday with Sandy, then something cold had stung his cheek.’

We discover that we no longer need this revealed chronology, and this is the precise reason why the author decides we can have it. He proves to us we are no longer the same person who read The Waves or Ulysses. We have gone a little farther on the path towards ‘the age of alienation and non-communication.’

The head of the universe beyond Lanark’s drowning, Lord Monboddo, has a ring of ‘my body’ to it. If it was meant that way, it was only to underline the dehumanization, the half-mechanical nature of life in Unthank, Provan or the Institute. This is the essence of Gray’s dystopia. In it, we travel from Hell to real life: from our worse fears of an imaginary future to a drab present, which is ours as well. The trip back and forth makes the future turn into the present under our own eyes. We find ourselves, exhausted, on the last threshold of a life of absence, sternly measured in swift, ‘decimal’ time. We sympathize with Lanark at last, when he thinks to himself, ‘I ought to have more love before I die.’ Only, once he feels that way, his trip ends, and ‘he was a slightly worried, ordinary old man but glad to see the light in the sky.’

The dreaded ‘goodbye’ closes our communication with him, and we feel sorry for having felt so little. We feel like going back and rereading the novel in a better way, since we know better now. We could say here that in this way the Desperado writer’s hope has been fulfilled.

Alasdair Gray makes us give up all rules and accept his imagination as the only law. His book is enthralling, after being repelling at first. The nightmare turns into a delight of participation to the unreal, the undesired, the implacable, the out of the ordinary.

Gray is an enemy of the tame, expected, natural flow of incidents or of words. His subject matter is frighteningly, appallingly appealing, his language, apparently austere, is a reversal of the face value of words, a revolution in the world of meanings, diving into the volcano-core of our brain, where speech is born.

We end by claiming, yet questioning both language and reality, by doubting our senses and our power to articulate. The whole human universe is under a huge question mark – and there is no answer anywhere. This dystopia of age is speechless and self-consuming.


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LIDIA VIANU | Desperado - Contemporary British Literature


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