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Alasdair Gray: Lanark

Lanark, Gray’s first novel, brought him to immediate prominence and it has been hailed as one of the great Scottish novels and one of the great novels of the 20th century. It took nearly thirty years after he first started writing it, before it was published. It is highly experimental. It consists of four books, with a prologue that is not at the beginning and an epilogue. Though the books are numbered one-four, Book Three is the first, followed by the Prologue and then Books One, Two and Four.

Books One and Two tell the fairly realistic story of Duncan Thaw, loosely based on Gray’s own life. Thaw is born in working-class Glasgow. During the war he faces evacuation. He later wins a scholarship to the Glasgow School of Art but he is not a success. He has problems relating to women and that fact and his artistic vision make him unable to cope with the real world and he ends up drowning himself. If the reader had started at Book One, this fairly conventional, realist narrative would have been the result. However, it is Book Three that starts the novel and Book Three is decidedly not realist. It tells the story of Lanark, an assumed name as the character has forgotten his real name and his own history. The inhabitants of this city, Unthank, have strange diseases symbolic of their emotional states. While an unpleasant place, with no sunlight, Unthank could easily be any grim twentieth century city, such as Glasgow. While there he meets Rima, who becomes his lover but she sees to know things about him from the past that he does not. Lanark and Rima contract dragonhide, a disease which makes their skin scaly and dragon-like. He ends up in an underground hospital but leaves when he finds that patients who are not cured are used for fuel and even food. He meets a dragon who turns out to be Rima and the pair escape.

The pair return to Unthank which has improved somewhat though is now under the control of Sludden, whom we had met in Book Three as head of the group Rima belonged to. Rima and the son, Sandy, she has by Lanark, who we now know is Thaw, desert Lanark for Sludden but Sludden asks Lanark to help by representing Unthank at the general assembly of council states, a sort of United Nations. It doesn’t quite work out though he does meet Nastler, the author of Lanark, and Lanark ends up a better man for having made the effort.

Mixing fantasy, realism, science fiction, postmodernism and a highly visionary view of the world, Gray has created a novel that will, indeed, rank highly. At times, you wonder where he is going but his vision of Glasgow and of the world are clearly stunningly original and well worth the reading.

Publishing history

First published 1981 by Canongate