Entertainment Book Reviews

Tuesday 24 April 2018

Love letters to a gloomy city steeped in existential angst

Fiction: That was a Shiver and Other Stories, James Kelman, Canongate, hdbk, 307pages, €16.50

James Kelman: Angering the cultural snobs. Photo: Robert Perry
James Kelman: Angering the cultural snobs. Photo: Robert Perry
That was a Shiver and Other Stories by James Kelman

JP O' Malley

Two years ago, I randomly took a stroll across Glasgow's city centre, accidentally stumbling into Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, where I began reading about the city's tragic history with awe and fascination. I discovered that from the late 19th century, right up until World War I, Glasgow produced one-fifth of the world's ships. Consequently, it became known as the second city of the British Empire.

With a hard-working immigrant population that included Irish, Jews and Eastern Europeans, the city was a hotbed of culture from various persuasions.

However, as the British Empire rapidly declined in the wake of the early 20th century, so too did Glasgow.

These days, every time the city appears in the headlines, it tends to be for all the wrong reasons: mass unemployment, football hooliganism, bad health stats, sectarianism, high murder rates, knife crime and social deprivation.

Glasgow, it appeared to me from my brief visit there, was a city of contradictions. The people were charming, open and friendly, and yet the melancholy was palpable.

It's in this bleak, urban, humorous, edgy and paradoxical world that James Kelman's fictional characters live and breathe, amidst a maelstrom of existential anxiety. That was a Shiver and Other Stories is Kelman's ninth book of stories to date.

The 71-year-old Glaswegian has also published nine novels, a number of dramas, and a collection of critical essays, too. In 1994, he won the Booker Prize for his novel How Late it Was, How Late. A storm of controversy ensued. Uppity Anglo-Saxon conservative critics claimed Kelman's continual use of the f*** word was gratuitous and culturally uncouth.

It's most likely these cultural snobs didn't get Kelman's work for two reasons. Firstly, because the British don't have a rich tradition in modernist literature. Kelman's influences are strictly European: Joyce, Kafka, Hamsun, Sartre and Beckett. And, secondly, because Kelman's prose rattles the English literary mainstream, which is obsessed with class, good manners, conventionality, ordered language, and with fixed boundaries.

What I found particularly appealing about this collection is the energy and dynamism of Kelman's writing. Everything is stripped down to its barest form. His musical playfulness with curse words is intriguing, almost an art form in itself.

The 25 stories vary in length - some are just a page or two. These little nuggets are more like philosophical essays about what it means to be alive. Or, seen from another angle, what it means to be on a slow road to death.

One certainly has to be in the mood for some of these bleaker existential tales. In 'This Has No Title' persons are described as "vessels, having emptied, [becoming]washed-up." Kelman could have just used the word people here, but he chooses his words carefully, to keep his bleak style consistent at all times.

The characters we meet in this collection are usually male, middle-aged, and angry at society, and the shitty set of circumstances life has bequeathed them. Kelman's scenes are framed in pubs, bookies, sitting rooms, or on public transport. And he tends to find beauty, humour, philosophy, and dramatic tension in the quotidian and the banal.

Nothing much happens to most of Kelman's characters. But that in itself becomes his point of interest. Most of what we are reading here is the inner thoughts of the protagonists themselves, rather than any actual movement or action of character. Usually these dark thoughts veer towards nihilistic despair. But it's not all Nietzschean-like doom and gloom.

Kelman's vision of the world is bleak - but redemption is forthcoming. Mostly, this comes from women: who tend to be the stronger characters we meet across these pages.

In tales like 'Oh the Days Ahead' and 'One has One's Weans', Kelman creates brilliant subtle tension between his male and female characters, who always appear to be misreading what the other is saying in Pinteresque-like little snippets of dialogue. These women provide much needed bits of humour to lift their male counterparts out of their existential dark holes.

It's the collection's final, eponymous story, however, that is the book's real masterpiece. We meet Robert, a middle-aged man walking around the Glasgow Barras markets, shopping for old LPs.

The narrative's brilliant dramatic tension arrives when, in a furious paranoid angry outburst, Robert accuses the seller on the record stall of trying to physically threaten him.

Kelman then subtly uses this episode as a gateway to look into the man's wider philosophical outlook on life, and then peer deeply into his family history, too.

Uncompromising in vision, and yet strangely adaptable in style and content, Kelman's harsh tales of dirty realism have sympathy for how suffering is a central component of the human condition.

This collection shows a writer who is still at the top of his game, brimming with creativity, vitality, and artistic integrity.

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