Lanark, published in 1981, is a cult classic of speculative fiction, a novel and autobiography that takes place across ruptured joints of time and place, with one part set in the fantastical dystopian land of Unthank and the other in Glasgow, the city which is artist and author Alasdair Gray’s lifelong muse. I don’t know how I’ve missed it until now, since the book feels like it was written for me.
A great deal of the pleasure of Lanark is in having no idea how it’s going to unfold, in being hit with the enormous surprises as it moves between worlds or parts of worlds in ways that shouldn’t work but do. (So, stop reading here and just go read it, if you love me and trust me!). The moment when I realized what I was in for came in Chapter 6. “Mouths.” Until this moment, the book had followed a recognizable man-arrives-in-a-strange-city trope, and adhered mostly to a gritty, dystopic realism. And then:
With no will to see anyone or do anything he immersed himself in sleep as much as possible, only waking to stare at the wall until sleep returned. It was a sullen pleasure to remember that the disease spread fastest in sleep. Let it spread! he thought. What else can I cultivate? But when the dragonhide had covered the arm and hand it spread no further, though the length of the limb as a whole increased by six inches. The fingers grew stouter, with a slight web between them, and the nails got longer and more curving. A red point like a rose thorn formed on each knuckle. A similar point, an inch and a half long, grew on the elbow and kept catching on the sheets so he slept with his right arm hanging outside the cover onto the floor.
People can develop strange scales in fiction—they do all the time nowadays, as a metaphor for all kinds of things—but arms can’t grow by six inches. This steps off an entirely different cliff, one usually confined to genre, and not attempted by serious literature. But Lanark is obviously serious literature. The novel is made up in four books, with the first and last set in Unthank bracketing two realist books about a protagonist named Duncan Thaw (who is Lanark, who is Gray). Thaw is an artist helplessly as a condition of existence, an asthmatic before there were good drugs for it, and has baroque sadomasochistic fantasies. He is a failure with women.
For me there’s hardly a point to an autobiography if it doesn’t connect to the world of dream and fantasy, doesn’t portray the baroque worlds we have within. There can be no Glasgow without Unthank. The realist bits of our lives are only part of it. So it’s a sublime joy to read an author who knows this, gets it, and delivers the same story—of stubbornness, loneliness, vanity, failure and the urge to create—both ways, real and subterranean.
I don’t want to give away all the good parts, but here is the beginning of a love-scene between Lanark and the girl he pursues through several stories and incarnations:
He leaned into the chamber through the open panel. All her limbs were metal now and she was bigger, head pressing the wall on one side and hooves on the other, the wings spread so that the tips of the plumes touched the walls all round and not an inch of the floor was visible. The air was chokingly hot and a white line like cigarette smoke rose from the beak. He said, “Rima.” The voice answered with a throb of delight…
He’s been trying to break through this girl’s shell, which in the realist section looks like ordinary awkward dating, and in Unthank becomes courting a dangerous and beautiful giant beetle in an underground cavern by reading to her, and telling her stories, and dodging the sharp bits.
I’ve been reading my way through the Gray interviews and ephemera available online, and somewhere he said that he did not wish for Lanark to be his personal story, and instead hoped to write about “a more general kind of man,” but that “mine were the only entrails available to me.” (Quotes are approximate, I’ve lost the source.) I’m so glad he did, and I can’t imagine Lanark any other way.