Friday, July 27, 2012

James Kelman's Lie Dream Of A Casino Soul Is A Relentless Train Of Thought, Not A Cakewalk

When James Kelman won the Booker Prize in 1994, his reputation was sealed.  That win, still flagged on his book jackets, was “a disgrace” according to Booker judge Rabbi Neuberger, because Kelman’s writing was “deeply inaccessible”. That was the polite end of the debate. Elsewhere, Kelman’s use of industrial language was criticised, on the peculiar premise that the way people talked - in Glasgow, specifically – should not be replicated in fiction. It was bad language.
Much of that criticism now seems like snobbery or – to be charitable – ignorance.  True, Kelman does not write beach novels, but his inaccessibility can be overestimated. He writes with warmth and empathy about people with unglamorous, sometimes miserable lives. That shouldn’t be a political act, but it is.
His new novel, Mo Said She Was Quirky (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99) is not exactly a page-turner but, unusually for Kelman, it does have a sense of narrative tension. The book documents 24 hours of the inner life of Helen, a London casino worker who thinks she sees her long-lost brother from the window of a taxi as she travels home from nightshift. The brother, or possible brother, is homeless, and Helen spends the next 24 hours wondering, obsessing, about what to do.
It’s a relentless train of thought, but not a smooth ride. The logic of Helen’s internal chatter is jittery, unreliable, unsure of its direction, and possibly neurotic. But it drives on regardless, into the past, the future, the present, the imagined, the misremembered and misconstrued; into affairs, fantasy affairs, worry over the consequences of actions not taken, childhood slurs, with Helen’s fears and anxieties magnified through hesitations and repetition.
Literary award judges may be relieved to note that Helen, though Glaswegian, thinks in Standard English, and doesn’t swear. (There is, at a rough count, just one f-word). In what may be a Kelman joke, she explains the need to change the way she speaks in order to be understood in London: “They made fun of her anyway”.  There are no apostrophes, and sentences are sometimes left hanging, but there is nothing difficult about the prose.
She thinks a lot, and what she thinks about is child abuse, racism, DIY television, divorce, and the boundaries of work friendships. Occasionally, the banality teeters into parody (a rumination on unironed vests, say), and Kelman’s agenda is sometimes more visible than it should be, as in a passage about the usefulness of celebrities.
Mostly, it’s a hamster-wheel of displacement and alienation. “Tonight was another day. That was what nightshift workers said,” Kelman observes. And later: “Today. Tomorrow was today for nightshift workers.” The narrative is fuelled by the cruel speed of urban life: “Everybody rushing around in the same way, everybody just like here there and everywhere, all roundabout, and bad-mannered too.”
What happens? Well, mostly, Helen exists, which is an achievement. She makes approximately one conscious decision in this single, sleep-deprived day; one attempt to overcome the sense of being burdened by ordinariness. 
Does it end happily? That is a question of luck, and the evidence that Kelman believes in the concept of benign chance is scant.