Kellan MacInnes’ novel, The Making Of Mickey Bell, is darkly comic tale with a protagonist who deals with triumph and despair and treats those impostors as the same…
Kellan MacInnes’ novel, The Making Of Mickey Bell, is a heart-felt missive to Scottish literature, referencing many of its best writers and poets…
Kellan MacInnes’ novel, The Making Of Mickey Bell, is an experimental work at times reminiscent of Kafka and Kelman…
All three of the above were attempts to begin this review, and all of them give a truth, but not the whole truth. The truth is that Kellan MacInnes’ The Making Of Mickey Bell is possibly the most packed novel you will read this year. It’s bursting with ideas, stylistic flourishes, unusual narrative voices and literary experimentation which makes it stand out in the crowd. There is so much going it threatens to overwhelm at times, but, mainly through Mickey Bell’s constant stravaiging, you are moved on to the next scenario slightly dazed but never confused.
It’s a novel which takes urban realism kicking and screaming into the wilds of Scotland. Imagine the famous scene in Trainspotting where Tommy tries to get Renton, Spud and Sick Boy up a mountain, and instead of them turning tail and heading back to Leith they decide to give it a go. Mickey Bell uses climbing munros as personal therapy, but his embracing of the country is a strong reminder, as if it were needed, that it’s not so “shite being Scottish” after all.
This is an important point. Trainspotting was published in 1993 and was set in the late 1980s, bang in the middle of a Tory hegemony which Scotland didn’t vote for and was powerless to change. It was a time pre-Devolution and Referendum, and as such it remains the perfect novel for its time and place. The Making Of Mickey Bell, by contrast, is one of the best artistic reactions to post-Referendum Scotland there has been so far. Despite the actions and deeds of many whom Mickey meets, this is a novel which ultimately offers hope for the future, both individually and shared.
The titular Mickey Bell is our guide through the novel, meeting a rogues’ gallery of the good, bad and ugly as he goes about his quest to bag all of Scotland’s munros. He is living with HIV/AIDS which means not only a regime of regular medication, but having to deal with the “labyrinthine” benefits and welfare systems. It’s little wonder he wants to head for the hills.
The rest of MacInnes’ characters, or “Cast” as he prefers it, are an equally unforgettable and unlikely bunch. There is John Paul O’Malley, a buddhist with serious issues, Zelda, a wicked Queen who is not quite Disney friendly, John-Fraser Smythe, the Secretary of State at the DSS who takes a keen interest in Mickey Bell, and Mr Fuk Holland 2012 who is heroic in name, deed and nature. Add to them Tyke, Mickey’s loyal collie dug, and a raven called Fithich, as well as the mysterious and eerie Taghan.
Talking animals appear to be a theme in Scottish fiction in 2016 with James Robertson’s articulate toad in To Be Continued and the argumentative alpacas in Kevin MacNeil’s The Brilliant and Forever, but MacInnes takes this even further with the thoughts and musing of ‘The Munros Book’, a talking book in the most literal sense. It’s another example of the surreal touches which are a feature of The Making Of Mickey Bell, making it such a curious read. Throw in Bette Davis and some other well-kent and no sae well kent faces, and you begin to understand how eccentric and off-kilter the book is.
Homage is paid to Scottish literature, and, as well as rejoicing in the shock and awe-naw of Irvine Welsh and John Niven, there are nods towards Edwin Morgan’s concrete poetry, the hard-hitting socio-political commentary of Duncan McLean, the heart and conscience of James Robertson, the offbeat realism and sensuality of Alan Warner, and the poetic feel for the land of Nan Shepherd. I’m sure when you read it (and you really must read it) you’ll find your own touchstones, but the greatest skill MacInnes shows is in knitting all of these influences together to create something brand-new and unique.
The Making Of Mickey Bell is all of the above and I feel I haven’t even scratched the surface in this review. What is most impressive is the desire to do something different. Actually, it’s the desire to do something different and pull it off. Kellan MacInnes has been willing to experiment with form, structure and language and you can’t help but feel he has had a ball doing it. There is a lust for life, and for writing, which runs through the book, and which keeps you turning the page. I would love to know what Mickey Bell does next, but I’m even more keen to read more Kellan MacInnes.
Here is the audio version of this review: