After two weeks of shuffling between London, Inverness, Fort William and Anstruther (the original lyrics to M’s 1979 classic Pop Music, unless I’m mistaken), I’m now back on Glasgow’s High St, but being away from writing Scots Whay Hae! has allowed for some reading, and particularly the time to think about what I really feel about James Kelman’s latest novel Mo said she was quirky.
Before I get into this I will lay all cards on the table. James Kelman is one of my heroes, and I will always search for the positives in his writing even when I’m aware of the flaws, in the same way that I do with the films of Woody Allen or the music of Tom Waits. All of this makes it sound as if I’m about to make apologies and excuses for an underwhelming novel. But this is Kelman, it’s never as simple as that.
What kept coming to me as I thought about Kelman’s writing was a key scene in the 1960 film Saturday Night, Sunday Morning where Albert Finney’s Arthur Seaton says ‘Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not because they don’t know a bloody thing about me! God knows what I am’. Kelman will not be easily placed and pigeonholed, and hates the idea of writers who are. For him writing is a serious, political, act and those who don’t engage with the political or social in their writing are frivolous at best and dangerous the rest of the time. They either distract individuals from what is important or maintain the cultural superiority of English speaking ruling classes, which continues to confirm to many working class children that the very language they speak, and that which their parents speak, is wrong and therefor inferior. He sees this as an institutionalised method of keeping a whole section of society in its place, and that place and its people are increasingly misrepresented, if they are at all, in all art.
Mo said she was quirky continues Kelman’s examination of those lives that others choose not to write about, or are simply not aware they exist. Helen is a single mum, separated from her abusive partner, who has come to London to escape and set up a new life with Mo and her daughter Sophie. Helen uses her skill as a croupier, forged in the casinos of Glasgow, to find work, and as a result is out all night and tries to sleep all day, briefly interacting with Mo and Sophie at breakfast and before she leaves the house. Her life is one long fret, as nightmares and real worries become one. Is her daughter safe? Will Mo get sick of this life and find another woman? Is her missing brother Brian homeless on the streets of London? Helen’s is an exhausting internal monologue, one which accurately reflects someone for whom life is a constant worry, and whose little moments of happiness are fleeting and must be treasured and guarded dearly.
The thoughts come thick and fast as Helen thinks back to her childhood, her relationship with her parents, her life in Glasgow, her hopes and dreams for Sophie, and even, briefly, for herself. She is in a life that is better than the one she has left behind, but it is still crippled by poverty; her choices virtually non-existent. Mo has given Sophie and herself a stable male presence for the first time, but this is not a life she desires, rather one she has no alternative to.
There was great excitement before Mo said she was quirky came out about the fact that Kelman was going to have a female protagonist for the first time. It has always been a criticism that he hasn’t written women well, tending to place them on pedestals as the possible saviours of his men, idealising them without realising them. With Helen he addresses this, and it allows him to comment on men through female eyes for the first time. What she and we see is not edifying as there are the leering gazes of those in the casino, and the threats of violence which are never far away, but Kelman has addressed these aspects of masculinity in previous novels. What this novel makes me realise is that the gender of his protagonists is really not that important. He is concerned with depicting individuals who many have written off, and as such they represent a section of society to whom their being male or female is not at the top of their priorities. Helen fits in with previous Kelman narrators as she typifies a struggle to come to terms with who she is.
The major problem with the novel is one of place rather than voice, or rather lack of it. For the majority of the novel we are in Helen’s flat as she ponders her life, but while this lack of movement may accurately reflect the majority of her time when she can have these thoughts there is no doubt that the novel changes pace when we are with her in the casino, or in the taxi home with her fellow workers. In all of Kelman’s novels the scenes change, and perhaps more importantly, the protagonists interact with other people directly. The Busconductor Hines has conversations with his workmates and wife, in A Disaffection Patrick Doyle has to deal with his family and we get to hear their sides as well as his. In Kieron Smith, boy we can see Kieron trying to make sense of the differing messages he is getting about right and wrong at home and at school. Helen’s time trapped in her flat alone lessens the drama as it is in the interaction with others that the individual exists. It would have been nice to have little more Mo.
Another thing that struck me was Helen’s use of the word ‘Oh’ to start a sentence. This is something which the pre-teen Kieron Smith did in Kelman’s last novel, and the effect of the two added together for me was that Helen’s language seemed childish at times. But then perhaps that’s the point. This is someone who left school only a few years after the age of Kieron, and Helen has not had the time or energy to self educate as many of Kelman’s male characters have. Perhaps this is the most clear difference between the sexes that Mo said she was quirky makes; that even in poverty men have greater choice than women.
James Kelman remains not only a great novelist, but a hugely important one. Mo said she was quirky is not his best work, but that still makes it better than nearly anything else I’ll read this year, and this is a very good year for Scottish writing. Which other Scottish novelist plays with form, language, narrative voice and point of view in this way? There seems to be a current critical consensus that what is important is how entertaining a work of art is, or how arch, ironic or clever. What that says to me is ‘how clever we are to get the joke’ and more importantly ‘how much money will it make?’. Things which are serious and difficult should just lighten up or they will be ignored. But most of us know the truth. While we might enjoy something we can tune in to with little effort, it is the difficult art, the stuff we have to work at, which changes our lives and our minds. We have to be challenged so that we in turn can challenge. Otherwise, what’s the point?