One of my reading resolutions for 2016 is to read more Scottish literature (the other is simply to read at least one classic each month). During the late eighties and throughout the nineties I read most new Scottish novels or short story collections which fell under the category of ‘literary fiction’. This meant encountering Alasdair Gray and James Kelman (who had first been published at the beginning of the eighties), Irvine Welsh, Janice Galloway, A. L. Kennedy, Ali Smith and writers now less well known (for example Jeff Torrington, whose Swing Hammer Swing! was recently reprinted by Vintage Classics; or James Meek who later found fame with The People’s Act of Love). It’s also the reason I possess a copy of Iain Rankin’s first novel, The Flood, published by Edinburgh University imprint Polygon. In fact, Polygon was responsible for the first (UK) publication of Kelman, Galloway and Kennedy; Gray’s Lanark was published by Canongate, also based in Edinburgh. Of course Polygon is no more and Canongate is largely indistinguishable from other UK publishers (bar its Canongate Classics series).
However, the main reason I drifted away from Scottish fiction was the feeling that it wasn’t very interesting anymore. Rankin must take at least some of the blame for this: ever since he decided to become a great crime writer rather than a great writer, an army of Scottish writers have followed in his wake, so much so that a new sub-genre, Tartan Noir, has been created. I was recently surprised to discover my view was shared by Adrian Searle, founder of Freight Books, one of a number of exciting new Scottish publishers:
“Saying Scottish fiction is boring is, of course, a vast generalisation, and I wouldn’t be in this business if it was all like that, but as someone who reads large amounts of Scottish fiction as part of my job, I’ve come to believe that, as a literary culture, we’ve become infantilised. We set the bar of quality lower for our own literature than that from elsewhere.”
Ironically, Freight is at the forefront of some interesting new voices in Scottish fiction, a prime example being Kirstin Innes’ Fishnet, winner of last year’s Guardian Not the Booker Prize. Fishnet is a novel about prostitution; that is, as well as doing everything else a novel does, it unambiguously sets itself up to explore this particular issue and our attitudes to it. Clearly there is danger that this function overwhelms the narrative and that the novel becomes little more than an outlet for the author’s research; that this doesn’t happen is testament to Innes’ skill, in what is her first novel.
Innes has the confidence to begin with a series of short, disconcerting chapters, the first a prelude to the main story, in which two young women wake up after a night spent in a hotel room with a DJ. One is clearly more innocent than the other: “Cam, he left us like, cash…” Innes disguises the identity of the first girl by using the second person, at the same time demanding that the reader place themselves in her position. This is followed with a brief glimpse of the first person narrative which will make up the majority of the novel describing a scrapbook of missing persons. Before we can become acquainted, however, we encounter a third section entitled About Me… – a series of adverts for female escorts:
“Whatever your looking for a brief encounter or a longer date, Sabrina offers a truly sophisticated girlfriend experience!!!”
From this point on the novel is largely told by our first person narrator, Fiona Leonard, whose sister Rona (we discover) went missing seven years before, but it will continue to be interrupted with material from the internet, in particular the blog posts of certain sex workers Fiona comes to follow, one of those rare occasions where the use of a blog genuinely enhances the novel. Fiona’s monotonous, dead-end job largely consists of making photocopies, phone-calls and tea. She lives in the flat above her parents, who help her look after Beth. Since her sister went missing her life has narrowed to work and child. Two coincidences connect her to the world of prostitution: new information she discovers about her sister on a hen night in the town where she last lived; and the involvement of her construction company in the closure of a refuge. Fiona’s journey into that world becomes our own as she seeks understanding as well as information.
Innes is careful not divorce the issue of sex work from that of gender politics: from the hen party onwards the novel shows an astute awareness of the roles women are given and adopt. The male gaze is never far away:
“Heather came tottering over. We’d dressed her in a white basque and pink fishnet stockings tonight, veil, tiara and a pink garter to hang her L-plates off. The men were watching her from their corners, watching her wobble and shake.”
Fishnet succeeds on every level: as a character portrait, a missing person thriller, an exploration of sexuality, and a re-evaluation of sex work (and work in general) If it doesn’t at least give you pause for thought, you must have come to it very enlightened indeed.