Pulp fiction often gets a bad press as it is seen by some as shorthand for bad, or at least sensational, writing which deals in cliches and stereotypes. Nonsense, of course (I believe the term refers to the cheap quality of paper that was used in the original magazines which gave birth to the genre, fact fans). What defines pulp fiction is its tendency to deal with the darker, lurid and sensational side of life, often showing the worst in human nature. The best examples, from The Big Sleep to American Psycho, do so with a mastery of language and literary style that belies the popular perception of how such subjects are approached.
Alice Thompson’s The Existential Detective and Burnt Island could be described as pulp fiction, but they are also two of the best Scottish novels in recent years. To those, add Graham Lironi’s Oh Marina Girl. Like Thompson, Lironi plays with language, character, structure and ideas of intertextuality, using all of the above to wrong foot readers. Although the themes of murder, suicide, kidnap and torture are pitch black, they are presented in contrasting ways; at times with appropriate seriousness, at others with a sensationalist glee.
It’s difficult to go into further detail without the possibility of spoiling the experience for future readers, as a large part of the joy of the book is in solving the puzzles Lironi has set and the traps he has laid. Suffice to say, the book should be read as a whole, literally cover to cover, and that you’ll find you come to trust little of what you are told in between those covers. I can imagine that some readers may find themselves frustrated as they are taken down another wrong path, but if you buy into Lironi’s world, and play the game, you are in for an undeniable and unexpected treat.
Aside from the mysteries which unfold on nearly every page, there is a sadness at the heart of Oh Marina Girl, as the narrator recounts how his wife and son go missing, presumed dead. These terrible events colour everything else which goes on, and are in themselves a change in mood which is unexpected after the way the novel begins. They also add a humanity to proceedings which make Oh Marina Girl more involving than many other novels which share its themes and tone.
Oh Marina Girl has all the makings of a cult classic as Lironi understands the conventions of the genre he is writing in, but then he twists those in an unexpected manner as well. It is also an example of a good Glasgow novel, the dearth of which I was discussing elsewhere with reference to Cathy McSporran’s recent debut Cold City. Like McSporran, Lironi uses the city and the accompanying mythology to add atmosphere and legitimacy to events. Another Glasgow novel I was put in mind of was Frank Kuppner’s A Very Quiet Street which also messes with reader’s perceptions of what a novel is, but Oh Marina Girl is much more fun.
In fact, I haven’t enjoyed reading a novel as much as this for some time, and I found myself constantly re-reading chapters and passages to see what clues or conundrums I may have missed. It’s a book you could become obsessed with as you are increasingly determined to find all the clues the writer has left, and as I read couldn’t shake the sense that Graham Lironi got as much pleasure writing Oh Marina Girl as I was gaining by reading it, delighting in the prospect of sharing this experience. Get yourself a copy, then tell your friends. This is too good to be kept a secret.