If it is your life

James Kelman’s seventh collection of short stories shows no change of direction: swearing, colloquial language (not always Scottish) and interior monologues abound. But then, Kelman’s relentless pursuit of creation without compromise has always been one of his most admirable features, at least to those of us who regard him as Scotland’s most significant living writer.

Isolation remains a strong theme throughout. As the narrator remarks in ‘I am as Putty’:

“There are people in this world who exist in a state of siege. They construct a moat round themselves and are continually raising the drawbridge.”

In many stories, the lack of connection Kelman explores is between the sexes. Kelman has commented, “For most men, females are mysterious; the converse is also the case,” and this is shown in story after story, a number of which feature couples. In ‘talking about my wife’ (the ‘about’ immediately signposting a distance in a story in which the narrator in talking to his wife) this can be seen in a succession of sentences like, “She ignored this,” and “She did not answer.” Instead emphasis is placed on the wife ‘watching’ and ‘studying’ her husband. The shorter story ‘Vacuum’, also about a married couple, ends with the lines:

“Even the way she was looking at me. How come she was looking at me? I looked at her. I stared at her. It was not hard to do.”

‘A Sour Mystery’ is about a man and the ex-girlfriend he resents for suddenly treating him as a non-sexual being (“Maybe she mistook me for a monk”):

“Jennifer had stopped talking to me in an honest and true fashion.”

In the title story, a student returning home to Glasgow considers his various relationships, friends and family, but particularly with Celia, a middle-class English girl he has met at university:

“I did not know women, I did not know them at all.”

It should not be assumed, however, that Kelman portrays this lack of connection simply as a bleak reminder of our essential aloneness. As anyone who has read his first novel, The Busconductor Hines, knows, he can present nuanced, loving relationships in this solipsist manner. This is often shown through physical attraction, for example in ‘talking about my wife’:

“Cath’s hand is a really sort of pleasant thing, it is soft and warm. I always found it pleasing in an aesthetic way.”

The narrator of ‘as if from nowhere’ is similarly attracted to his nurse:

“Even more astonishing, that a woman should allow such a hand to touch her skin, stroke her skin, to trace, these lines and surface of the skin whoever drew the surface of the skin, had any artist ever managed that.”

Both refer to drawing the hand, distrusting the ability of words to capture the emotion. One of the most moving stories, ‘death is not.’, tells of a dying man who is unable to speak to his wife:

“I wanted to explain to her I did not not answer intentionally. I did not care about the others. Only her, and even to her I found I could not answer.”

Here the silence becomes a closer bond than words.

Kelman also continues to portray the conflicts between the individual and the “greatbritishsocialsystem”. There are stories set in hospitals, an employment exchange, and a court. More than once, however, there is a sense that the appetite for the fight has gone:

“Why did people not fight? It was the same in Scotland. People didn’t fight, not like in the old days.”

That this is followed by the expression “Scots wha hae,” reminds us not to take the narrator’s nostalgia for Kelman’s, but the topic is touched on again in ‘Man to Man’ when a man abuses his wife in a bar:

“How come they were letting it happen?”

Ageing itself is a preoccupation, with three of the stories set in hospitals and many of them featuring an ‘old Jimmy’ or ‘old Mister McGuire’. The grandfather in ‘The Gate’ refers to himself as having the “typical elderly male role”, and in ‘The Third Man, or else the Fourth’ the homeless narrator is feeling the cold:

“Auld age; the blood gets thin.”

Even the young man in ‘Ingrained’ comments;

“That was you getting old when your memory went.”

But Kelman is neither bleak nor cynical. Much dark humour is to be found, for example when the narrator of ‘Tricky times ahead pal’ finds that the wrong leg has been removed from his trousers:

“So now I had to wear the trousers back to front.”

Interestingly, characters are frequently seen to be smiling. This is not to suggest that you would turn to Kelman for laughs; but if you are interested in contemporary writing at all you should be reading him.

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