Gray Matters, Or 'Praise by Faint Damnation'.

The author writes in his old familiar style, which is to say that he is over-influenced by himself.

Feature by Keir Hind | 08 Oct 2007
Alasdair Gray, that most eminent of Glaswegian literary reprobates, is up to his old tricks in his new book Old Men in Love. Cleverest of the multitude of tricks employed is the way that he spoils his critic's fun by having one Sidney Workman, his sternest critic, write what could be termed a 'pointed' condemnation at the end of the novel. So I will now differ by writing a 'pointless' condemnation of this rather good novel.

Best to start this by saying that the author writes in his old familiar style, which is to say that he is over-influenced by himself. He writes, as he did in Poor Things, a novel which he claims to have edited from materials written by others, mainly the clearly invented John Tunnock. Tunnock is a Gravian mouthpiece, and aspiring writer of a massive epic which depicts attempts to create great societies, in Ancient Athens, Renaissance Florence and in a religious enclave of Victorian England. Gray intersperses Tunnock's stories with extracts from his present day diaries, explaining his fate. This structure may seem innovative, but the use of varied historical fictions tied in to a great theme as seen from the present day clearly steals from Thomas Pynchon. Gray departs from Pynchon's example by making his book readable. He also rather nicely puts notes in the margins, but here spoils his effect by making these a disagreeable shade of blue.

Similarly, the historical sections are well observed, and yet always fatally flawed. The Florentine sections are great but short. Or maybe great because they're short. The Athenian sections are full of the fruits of Gray's knowledge of the classics, but then this is just showing off. And the Victorian section is a well researched, factual account of the setting up of a Christian sect. This fails because, as reality tends to prove, facts just don't mix well with organised religion. Gray's theme seems to be that it is hard to create a just and fair society, noting through Tunnock's diary that "Britain has now only seven highly profitable industries and they all sell armaments! Every prosperous bastard has investments in them!" The problem with such statements is that they are too cleverly smuggled in, and can't be easily skipped over. They are also problematic because they're true, and as the author well knows most of us prefer ignorance.

So what is this book? It's a well observed and well structured novel of ideas with contemporary relevance, which as I have demonstrated, is a bad thing. Sidney Workman says 'this book should not be read' and this is true. Because if you want to read something without being entertained or – God forbid - learning anything, then don't read this book whatever you do. [Keir Hind]
We had to spike a Philip Roth feature for this! Ah well: Release date: 1 Oct. Published by Bloomsbury. Cover price £20.00 hardback.