1982, Janine by Alasdair Gray - review by Paul Ableman

Paul Ableman

Contemporary Congruity

1982, Janine


Jonathan Cape 345pp £8.95

I will only briefly summarize the plot since it is of small relevance to the nature, or stature, of this work. We are told, in the drunken soliloquy of a fifty-year-old electrical engineer, that he was the son of a Marx-fearing, collier father and dour mother, that he was clever, won a place at Glasgow technical college, flirted briefly with the theatre, seduced and deserted a working girl, suffered atrocious guilt feelings, was trapped into a marriage which, a decade later, ended in divorce, had no children, became a supervisor of security installations and now derives his chief comforts from erotic fantasy and malt whisky.

The following blurb is worth quoting in full since it betrays an ironic and subtly self-congratulatory view of the author’s intentions. The truth of that proposition depends, naturally, on the author having written the blurb but authors often do and, considering its style, almost certainly did in the present case.

This already dated novel is set inside the head of an ageing, divorced, alcoholic, insomniac supervisor of security installations who is tippling in the bedroom of a small Scottish hotel. Though full of depressing memories and propaganda for the Conservative party it is mainly a sado-masochistic fetishistic fantasy. Even the arrival of God in the later chapters fails to elevate the tone. Every stylistic excess and moral defect which critics conspired to ignore in the author’s first books, Lanark and Unlikely Stories, Mostly, is to be found here in concentrated form.

I was not amongst the critics who allegedly ignored the ‘stylistic excesses’ and ‘moral defects’ of Mr Gray’s earlier books. As it happens, I never read them but I am flexing my muscles right now before wading in to assail the present distended, often tedious and self-indulgent offering. For all that, I cannot rid myself of the notion that, despite its glaring faults, which do not exclude the modishly cryptic title, this work offers more hope for the future of fiction, considered as art and vision, than the vast majority of novels published since the second world war.

The chief reason for this, albeit grudging accolade is that 1982, Janine is about the world as it is rather than as it used to be. Fiction, in general, has conspired to ignore the fact that the world has changed almost beyond belief since the days of Jane Austen or even those of Leo Tolstoy. Not only are the chief dynamics of our culture provided by science (which makes the laws) and technology (which enforces them) but these two drives affect every aspect of how we live, how we perceive our own lives and the universe and even the prospect of life surviving in this sector of the cosmos. But where are these concerns surveyed, or even touched upon in modern fiction? It is, in fact, possible to read highly-esteemed works by highly-acclaimed authors in which, if a few references to technological artefacts were removed, it would be hard to tell that life, thought and the material environment are much changed from what they were in the eighteenth century. Of course, some thinkers argue that the essence of the human experience does not change and that the ‘eternal verities’ hold good now as they did for the Babylonian author of the Epic of Gilgamesh three thousand years ago. In fact there are no eternal verities, not even, if you protract your search far enough back in evolutionary time, morphological ones. But even if it were true that profound moral and social truths remain unmodified from pre-scientific days, it is surely still the case that contemporary novelists ought to express the specific nature of contemporary life as Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy did in their times. No artist can retain credibility and ignore the everyday facts, never mind the broader significance of those facts, of his own age.

1982, Janine is deeply-impregnated with the mood of our age and contains telling discussion of it. The first-person narrator is himself a technician while the book’s shining hero figure, the equivalent of the boy-poet despatched as subaltern to the trenches of the first world war in more orthodox narratives, is an engineering student who dies young. The shadow of nuclear annihilation hangs over Mr Gray’s book and the presence of nuclear artefacts informs the sociology and demography of his picture of contemporary Scotland. The book’s characters are such men and women as we actually meet rather than the literary heirs to a stale fictional tradition.

The sadistic schoolmaster ‘Mad Hislop’ is a tremendous figure, worthy of setting beside classic fictional titans, and yet he remains quintessentially modern. Even the minor characters, who flit through the narrator’s memory, like the fat, homosexual chemist who once gave him a desired bottle of barbiturates as an escape hatch when personal or political reality became too much to take, are brought memorably to life. It is in its congruence with contemporary experience that I locate the chief virtue of this impressive, if flawed book.

But if subject matter were the essence of modernity then science fiction would have to be classified as the most modern category of fiction. In fact, SF is mostly traditional, and even reactionary, because it is style and not content which fundamentally defines the degree of harmony of any work of literature with its age. If modern science has destroyed the certainties of earlier ages it has also undermined the stylistic techniques of earlier ages. How can linear narrative, the God’s-eye narrator and stable characters be reconciled with Einsteinian relativity and the other scientific-technological forces which dominate everyday life? The truth is that they can’t be so reconciled and certain outstanding novelists have perceived this for a long time now and attempted to develop techniques by which prose narrative could be made competent to discuss contemporary reality. Chief amongst these is, of course, James Joyce who solved all the relevant problems except the crucial one of maintaining narrative drive and thus his hold on the reader. More successful than Joyce, in this respect, have been Nabokov in Lolita, and John Updike in The Coup. Interestingly enough these two, unlike Joyce, used first-person narrators and so does Alasdair Gray. A first-person narrator can provide a plausible point of view as well as scope for representing different psychological states and levels of perception.

Mr Gray’s problem is that, having equipped himself with the engine which worked so well for Nabokov, Updike and others, he then amuses himself by hurling stylistic spanners into the works until the machine virtually grinds to a halt. Most jarring of these self-sabotage attempts are the ‘sado-masochistic fetishistic fantasies’ he shrewdly draws attention to in the blurb. Now I suspect that the thirty percent or so of the book which concerns itself with the hero’s elaborate masturbatory day-dreams are included for artistic reasons, that is to counterpoint the granite harshness of reality, to probe character and also to supply a kind of metaphor for the dominant theme of the work, which is contemporary society armed with The Bomb. This is considered as the erotic dream of a deranged species, and not included as crowd-pleasing pornography. I suspect this largely because I found these passages so ineffably tedious and unstimulating (other than of a desire to hurl the book through the window) that I can barely conceive how they could generate a voluptuous response in anyone. Still – de gustibus.

All I can say is that if the work had been purged of ninety percent of the hero’s endless mental preparation of Janine, Big Mamma, Superb and the rest for brutal violation, which is never actually achieved (doubtless a telling psychological point), and the excruciatingly loving, or hating descriptions of the satin which cuddles the crotch and the muslin which mists the mammaries it would have been, for me, a far better book. The other stylistic excess which compromised my enjoyment was a sub-Joycean, sub-Sternian passage of typographical atrocity, occupying virtually a whole chapter, and which does little more than force one to study Mr Gray’s syntax more attentively than it can stand. For the truth is that Alasdair Gray writes well, and occasionally lifts his prose to heights where it can bear comparison with the work of some of the masters mentioned in this review, but its normal quality is flat and gritty.

It’s a pity because I have learned that Mr Gray is a late starter. His first book was published a few years ago when he was in his late forties. He is now fifty, like the hero of the present novel. If he were a young writer just embarking on his career I would, without hesitation, predict a brilliant future for him once he had dropped irritating mannerisms and, most important, refined and strengthened his prose style. But there have been other late starters who have made great leaps in the latter part of their lives. Alasdair G ray has already with 1982, Janine and, I gather, his earlier Joycean novel Lanark, enriched modern literature. He is one of the few contemporary novelists I can think of who may yet turn out to be great.

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