Lanark: A Life in Four Acts, by Alasdair Gray

Written between 1954 and 1976, though not published until 1981, Lanark is the second book most mentioned by readers responding to an article in The Guardian asking for the best post-war British novel. Under the Volcano was the first.

Half of this book is a coming-of-age story of Duncan Thaw in pre-war Glasgow, an unsurprising account of the usual obsessions of the young men in such tales: sex, embarrassment, sex, trying to impress other men, sex, girls, fame, sex. Only willing to do the schoolwork that interests him (art, literature, and history), he is the despair of his widower father, whose highest ambition for his son is that he get a steady job while Duncan’s own dream is to create the greatest artwork his city has ever seen.

The other half of the book is a post-modern fable about Lanark, a young man who finds himself in the city of Unthank, which happens to resemble Glasgow, where he mopes about and wishes he had friends. Time plays strange tricks in this alternate world where the sun never shines except, occasionally, for a brief moment at dawn. Lanark, however, is as unsurprised and accepting of the bizarre jumps in time as he is of all the other fantastic happenings in Unthank.

While waking up as a loner in Unthank, with stones and shells in his pockets and as desperate for sunlight as for a woman to love, is certainly better than waking up as cockroach, Lanark finds misery enough. Beset by forces he doesn’t understand, meeting the same people over and over in different guises, he sometimes seems as hapless and innocent as Candide. As he tangles with the powers that run the place—the Council, the mysterious Institute where he is confined, and various mega-corporations—he begins to grasp the so-far elusive rules of the game that is his life.

Like the Lowry book, this is one I probably would have liked better if I’d read it when I was in college, immersed in existentialism and still new to the narrative tricks Gray plays here. By now I’ve read too many Bildungsroman, I guess, and listened to too many people describe bad trips. I’ve seen too many abuses of power and too much of the blind apathy of those abused.

Still, I must recognise and pay tribute to the imaginative brilliance that holds the book together and kept me reading to the end. Maybe it is just the wrong time of year to read this story, now when the daffodils fill the hillsides with sunlight and the tulip magnolias lift great armfuls of creamy pink blossoms to the cerulean sky.

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