February 12, 2007

Poor Things by Alasdair Gray

Alasdair Gray's novel, Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D. Scottish Public Health Officer edited by Alasdair Gray, is one of those great books that I never would have known about if it hadn't come so very recommended by a good friend of mine who happens to have really interesting taste in literature.

The general plot is a little difficult to describe without giving too much away, so I'm going to cheat and quote the blurb on the back of the paperback edition. It reads:

What strange secret made beautiful, tempestuous Bella Baxter irresistible to the poor medical student Archie McCandless? Was it her mysterious origin in the home of his monstrous friend Godwin Baxter, the genius whose voice could perforate eardrums? This story of true love and scientific daring storms through Victorian operating theaters, continental casinos, and a Parisian bordello, reaching an interrupted climax in a Scottish church.

And believe me when I say that's only the beginning.

Gray's style is like the offspring of the most modern post-modernist and the most ardent Victorian Gothic realist - and I'm not even sure if there is such a thing as Victorian Gothic realism. Gray winkingly introduces Poor Things as a book "written" by Archie McCandless and "edited" by himself. In his Introduction, he admits to a certain disagreement over whether or not the book is purely fiction or an amazing account of real occurrences. This sets up one of this book's primary points of interest - it's written in such a way that the reader has no idea which narrative voice he or she can trust. Gray pulls this thread of narrative untrustworthiness all the way through, starting with his introduction and then continuing it through McCandless' book. But then he whollops all of the reader's certainty about McCandless' veracity with a letter from Bella Baxter (now Victoria McCandless), denying the truth of her husband's story and telling her own version of it. Then Gray topples the reader's ability to rely on her testimony with the "historical evidence" he's collected. The reader is left with no clue as to which perspective is the accurate perspective and the distinct impression that they could all be lunatics. I love being kept on my toes and Gray did it without ever making me feel manipulated.

I also loved Gray's ability to play with the English language and his use of that play to chart the development of a brain from childhood to adulthood. But I don't want to say any more about that for those who haven't read it.

I just had so much fun with this daft, terribly clever novel. I never would have heard about it, let alone read it, without a recommendation (particularly because it is pretty post-modern and I don't usually go in for that), but I'm so happy that I did. Therefore, I am heartily recommending it in turn - it's not hard to find and very worth the read, especially if you like Frankenstein, Edgar Allen Poe, H.G.Wells, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalian, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula, Trilby, Alice Through the Looking-Glass or Rider Haggard's She. Belle Baxter/Victoria McCandless herself claims that her husband filched elements from all of these books and incorporated them in his Poor Things, but I wouldn't necessarily trust her. Just read for yourself....

7 comments:

lizardqueen said...

Sounds pretty Menippean to me, like Tristam Shandy. :-)

Madeleine said...

It is actually rather Menippean, although not quite as much as Tristam Shandy...Gray definitely does satirize certain issues, and not just literary ones, from the inside. He especially looks at the Industrial Revoultion, the medical profession in Victorian England (including birth control, syphilis and hygiene), religion, imperialism, socialism and capitalism...hmmm. Actually, now that you mention it, he doesn't leave much untouched :-)

amanda said...

And the thing is, he's awfully easy to read.

Madeleine said...

He is that - I whizzed right through it in two days...

coffespaz said...

I love the fact that you read more classical writing rather than modern fiction. It is truly inspirational and I appreciate reading your thoughts and considerations.

jonathon said...

Have you read Lanark? It keeps coming up n conversation.

Anonymous said...

Have not read Lanark, but started off with '1982 Janine' and now 'Poor Things.' Although, madeleine, I must point out that it is not Victorian England but Victorian Scotland, which is the focus. If you can't see a difference then you've no business reading Gray. Bella is Scotland, whereas Blessington is England. Both exist in a loveless marriage formed out of convenience. It is, I believe, one of Gray's purposes to cast Bella/Scotland as the unruly and untameable mistress to Blessington/England. Always remember the postmodern when reading Gray, and never, ever, forget that above all things he is a Scottish nationalist, whose concerns with national identity and historical continuity (or lack of) are incorporated into all of his work.