TITLE: LANARK –A LIFE IN FOUR BOOKS AUTHOR: Alasdair Gray DATE PUBLISHED: 1981 DATE READ: September 2008 NOTES: I had heard Lanark described as a Glaswegian cult classic but I didn’t quite know what to expect. There are two narrative threads. Books 1 and 2 are written in a fairly conventional and naturalistic style and tell the story of Duncan Thaw as he moves through a pretty unhappy childhood into an equally unhappy adolescence. His burning ambition is to paint and he takes on the mammoth task of a church mural. He receives no payment for this and in the end it is rejected by the church hierarchy. Thereafter he sinks into depression and breakdown. Books 3 and 4 describe the strange dystopic parallel world of Unthank and the adventures of Lanark. This is a surreal place – a mixture of sci-fi, Kafka and horror comics. Here the normal rules of reality have broken down. Although the book could be read as two separate narratives it soon becomes clear that Unthank is an allegorical Glasgow and Lanark is another version of Thaw. There are other parallels – for instance the eczema that Thaw suffers from and the dragon skins of the inhabitants of Unthank.
The story of Duncan Thaw was excellent – touching without being sentimental, a beautiful evocation of childhood and adolescence. Not being a fan of science fiction I was less enthralled by the Unthank sections - although I appreciated the vigorous language and the massive flow of ideas. You can play at “Spot the Influences” – Kafka, Joyce, Orwell etc. In fact Gray, in one of many comic touches, includes a list of “embedded Plagiarisms” which stretches over fifteen pages! Lanark is very much a political book – in the Institute of Unthank the patients are used as food for the staff (an allegory for capitalism in action?). The plot also involves pollution, environmental degradation and over-population. It is not easy to sum up Lanark in a few words. It is ambitious, quirky, funny and challenging. Quite an achievement!