If Mr Alfred M.A.’s examination of the education system can be described as cynical, then where does that leave James Kelman’s A Disaffection? In it, English teacher Patrick Doyle is immediately characterised as “sickened” by his job; he wonders if he is “The Staffroom Cynic” or just “embittered,” viewing education as a tool of the state:
“You are here being fenced in by us the teachers at the behest of the government in explicit simulation of your parents, viz. the suppressed poor.”
Like many of Kelman’s characters, Doyle lives his life in quiet desperation:
“…all those failed plans and principles and ideas for the future, all those ways ahead. And now here he was, a teacher – still a teacher! What was to be done. Nothing.”
Whereas in most novels a basically happy character is acted upon or takes action in such a way as to threaten their happiness, in Kelman’s early novels a basically unhappy character frets about their unhappiness while nothing changes: there is no inner decisiveness or fortuitous outer circumstance to alter their life. Often Kelman teases us with plot devices from conventional fiction which come to nothing. Two of these are used in A Disaffection: Doyle’s announcement that his is going to quit his job and his attraction to fellow teacher, Alison. Doyle’s exclamation in the staffroom – “That’s how I’m bloody leaving” – is more a cry of despair than a decision to direct his life in a new direction.
“He was finished with it, finished with it; he was just finished with it.”
These sentiments appear as early as page 15 but, at the novel’s conclusion over 300 pages later, he is still a teacher. The only change which might actually occur is a transfer to another school which he cannot remember requesting.
Similarly his relationship with Alison seems rooted in despair rather than affection:
“Because what would happen if he broke down! What would happen if he laid his head onto her lap! Into her lap. Snugly.”
Hope comes in the form of a pair of pipes that he discovers abandoned at the arts centre – “ordinary pipes like the sort used by plumbers and electricians.” Only in his desire to play them does he find any kind of fulfilment:
“What could it be? …This astonishing accomplishment he would achieve on a pair of discarded pipes, found dumped behind the rear fire escape of the local arts centre.”
The pipes encapsulate Doyle’s desire for expression – with a link to his working class background which he worries about having abandoned and an ironic nod towards the Pied Piper. Needless to say, his hopes they will somehow articulate his feelings – for example, towards Alison – are unfounded. They cannot counter-act Goya’s late, dark paintings which also fascinate him and best encapsulate the mood of the novel.
This, then, is not a book to make you feel good about life – but it is also not at all cynical. Kelman is a writer who never shows contempt for his characters, a vital ingredient of cynicism. If anything, Doyle cares too much, made inarticulate by the rawness of his rage against the cynical world he lives in.