The Year of Reading Dangerously – Alasdair Gray
1982 Janine is not the most obviously experimental of Alasdair Gray’s novels: Lanark, with its disordered books, author appearance and Index of Plagiarisms (complete with imaginary chapters), and Poor Things, with its various narratives and scholarly notes, are more formally adventurous. However, having read both a number of times, I decided to return to Gray’s second novel for the first time in over twenty-five years. It still displays one or two of Gray’s tricks, from the unflattering blurb:
“Every stylistic excess and moral defect which critics conspired to ignore in the author’s first books…is to be found here in concentrated form.”
to the typographical mayhem of ‘The Ministry of Voices’. For the most part, however, the novel is an interior monologue addressed to God, taking place over the course of one long, dark night.
As with Lanark, Gray is concerned with both the personal and the political: for Gray the two are indivisible. Though the novel opens with the sexual fantasies of its narrator (and you can’t get much more personal than that), Jock McLeish, it is not long before he is also discussing his political views with us:
“…in Britain almost everyone of my income group is Conservative, especially if their fathers were trade unionists. Not that I have totally rejected the old man’s Marxist ideas. The notion that all politics is class warfare is clearly correct. Every intelligent Tory knows that politics is a matter of people with a lot of money combining to manage people with very little.”
This is typical Gray – not only the view expressed, but the succinct and certain tone with which complex truths are revealed in all their simplicity. Whereas love united the personal and political journeys of Lanark, here we are more concerned with repression. Published in 1984 (the title is an echo of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, deliberately backward looking, with its everyman protagonist tortured by memory rather than forgetting in a Room 101 of his own choosing – the novel’s first line is “This is a good room”), Scotland was trapped in an unending nightmare of Tory rule. Gray links personal, particularly emotional, repression to that of national oppression. It is no surprise that McLeish works as a security consultant – at one point he describes himself as a “locked box”.
Throughout the novel, McLeish attempts to repress his memories, particularly of those he has loved, with pornographic fantasies. When memories surface, they are clearly painful:
“When forget her and I were not lovemaking or asleep we lay merely holding each other, amazed and grateful to be holding each other.”
McLeish concocts sadistic storylines in which women are restrained and abused by men and other women. In a world of instant internet pornography they possibly seem quite tame, but in a literary novel they still have some shock value, particularly as the text form requires the complicity of the reader to bring them to life. McLeish’s constant descriptions of clothes make clear that the women themselves are little more than objects:
“Do I like women’s clothes more than their bodies? Oh no, but I prefer their clothes to their minds. Their minds keep telling me, no thank you, don’t touch, go away. Their clothes say, look at me, want me, I am exciting.”
As the novel progresses the pornography fades away and we learn more about McLeish’s life: his childhood, his time at college, and the crucial turning point in his life when he assists a theatre group at the Edinburgh Fringe. There, his lack of belief in himself prevents him recognising his own potential, and he ends up trapped in a loveless marriage. His best friend at college, Alan, whom he regards as a man that might do anything, dies in a fall, an event Gray uses to show the demise of McLeish’s optimism. He later fantasises about Alan creating a utopia on earth had he lived:
“While working hard in every field of energy and communications I was helping my friend Alan establish the proper place and destination of man in the universe.”
McLeish’s journey is not unlike Lanark’s: he must go down to Hell and then return to the daylight. Page 56 of the novel is, in fact, made up entirely of the word ‘hell’. Here the transformation also takes place through a mouth, but it is McLeish’s’ own mouth, first when he attempts suicide by taking an overdose and then when he chooses to live and vomits the pills up again. It is this that makes 1982 Janine a resoundingly optimistic novel despite the bleak picture of the world, and the people in it, which it frequently paints.
Danger rating: either that the pornography will put you off, or you’ll be disappointed when it disappears.