Once a writer has written a book that enough people like, he or she is expected to go on writing that book over and over forever. If the writer is a hack and starts cranking out more of the same, his audience and acclaim will grow. If the writer is good, and continues to grow in his work, he inevitably alienates a good portion of his audience, which sees their dissatisfaction with the writer’s new direction as a failing of the writer.
Alasdair Gray was born in Scotland in 1934, the son of a factory worker and a shop clerk. He spent his adult life until the age of 47 working on a single novel, Lanark, which has been called things like the Scottish Ulysses (referring to the work by James Joyce). The New Yorker called Gray “the grand old man of the Scottish renaissance.” Anthony Burgess called Gray “the best Scottish novelist since Walter Scott.”
Lanark is 600 pages, surreal, and reminds me of Gravity’s Rainbow. It’s one of those books a person can brag about having read. Lanark did nothing in the U.S. (possibly because of the incompetence of Harper and Row), but in the U.K. it has stayed in print and come to be considered a classic.
As the savior of Scottish literature, and an activist in the Scottish self-government movement to boot, you can imagine the pressures on Gray to crank out another Lanark. But he attained sufficient financial freedom with Lanark to be able to take his writing wherever he chose, and that’s probably part of why we are lucky enough to have The Ends of Our Tethers, 13 Sorry Stories.
Some critics grouse that the stories in the collection aren’t as weird as Lanark. Others complain that the stories are largely about couples and intimate relationships, instead of Scottish nationalism. Other critics completely miss the boat and see these stories as the biographical ramblings of an old guy who’s losing it.
Gray, who clearly anticipated all of this, concludes the collection with a hilarious piece titled “End Notes and Critic Fuel,” which opens with a jab at critics who can’t appreciate the brilliance of Agnes Owens, a respected Scottish novelist who remains poor and has been continually passed over for awards. (If critics haven’t been smart enough to appreciate Owens, what business do they have criticizing anyone else?) Gray continues the piece with the kinds of trivial biographical facts that critics love to glom onto for their analyses, then concludes with an inane series of fiction, book review and logic exercises, including:
BOOK REVIEW EXERCISE
Queneau’s Le Chiendant explores the existential consequences of radical changes of epistemological perspective.
Without loss of intelligibility rewrite the preceding sentence using the word paradigm.
I like Alasdair Gray a lot.
In Lanark Gray wrote, “War is just a violent way of doing what half the people do calmly in peacetime: using the other half for food, heat, machinery and sexual pleasure.” The exploration of the ways we use each other is the theme not only of Lanark but also Gray’s nonfiction political book, Why Scots Should Rule Scotland.
My take on The Ends of Our Tethers is that this collection of short stories is just as much about Gray’s great theme, but in this book the theme is more poignant and deadly because the exploitation in the stories is intimate rather than between big groups.
In “Big Pockets with Buttoned Flaps,” a man seeks to exploit a young girl for sex, only to find that she and her friends have set him up to rob him.
In Gray’s terrific story, “No Bluebeard,” a man has worked his way through three wives to avoid sexual loneliness, starts an affair with a frankly crazy young woman with a speech tic, marries her to keep the sex going, only to fall truly in love for the first time when it becomes absolutely clear he will never get what he wants.
“Aiblins” (the title is the name of a character, plus “an old Scots word meaning ‘perhaps’”—or so Gray helpfully informs us in his “End Notes and Critic Fuel”) is a story that reminds me of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” (the failure to heed the call for charity, the despair unto death—Bartleby is my favorite work of Melville’s; I find the whaling yarn tedious and painful). Gray’s story is about a non-tenured instructor of creative writing at a college that changes its creative writing teacher every two years to avoid paying benefits (teaching students to write being the classic ill-paying, creativity-draining job in which fiction writers these days tend to waste the best years of their lives.)
Among the shy housewives “writing a novel about being the mistress of a South American dictator” and teenage girls writing “passionate verses against the evils of abortion” that he encounters while exploiting these students to keep himself afloat, the teacher runs into a student (the Aiblins of the title) who may be a literary genius. The student seeks to exploit the teacher’s connections to publish his poems. But instead of helping Aiblins, the teacher proceeds to give the kid the most pedantic, self-stroking creative writing advice ever to see print, and Aiblins, leaving, tells the teacher not to blame himself too much for the things he just said.
The teacher can’t forget Aiblins’ work, but Aiblins has left the school. The teacher goes on to other teaching jobs, publishes a book of poems, wins some awards. Then Aiblins turns up again, looking like life has been very hard for him in the interim. After cackling with glee over the teacher’s “achievements,” and pronouncing the teacher’s published work “crap, rubbish, pretentious drivel, an astonishing victory of sound over sense,” Aiblins hauls out the sheaf of poems he asked the teacher to look at twelve years earlier, and asks him to “get one of your posh London publisher pals to print them.”
In fact, Aiblins is so desperate to get his poems into print that he is willing to allow the teacher himself to take credit for them. The teacher again refuses to help, and instead serves up some more trite and useless advice. But he saves the poems in his files.
Aiblins turns up once more, many years later, now “bald with many bruises on his head and face and many unhealed cuts between them.” They have enough of a conversation to make it clear that Aiblins still has the old spirit, though he is now suffering from incapacitating delusions and hallucinations. The teacher gives Aiblins some money and leaves in a near panic. He is afraid to look at the poems Aiblins gave him so long ago, and also afraid to show them to anyone else, because he’s afraid they really are brilliant.
There are ten other stories in Gray’s book—a brother and sister dealing with an exploitative father, a landowner who harasses workers who have camped on his property—all of the stories so good I have to hold myself back from writing every detail about them. The Ends of Our Tethers, like many of the shorter, simpler works put out by great writers after they’ve gotten The Big One out of their systems, is funny, profoundly moving, and a rewarding read.
Gray is also an acclaimed painter. The artwork that decorates the top of this page is part of Gray’s mural at the Oran Mor, a Glasgow pub, restaurant and music venue housed in a converted church.
The Ends of Our Tethers