There is an argument which you may have heard, possibly on these pages, that while James Kelman is one of the finest novelists around today, the format which suits his writing best is the short story. Kelman’s narratives are not about plot, they are snapshots of people’s everyday lives; lives which have been going on before we become involved, and which will continue once we have moved on, and that seems to work best in short, sharp bursts – fleeting, like thoughts themselves.
His latest collection, That Was A Shiver and Other Stories, is testament to this. For Kelman acolytes there are all the usual touchstones – references to other art forms, existential philosophy, the influence of Descartes (‘Clinging On’), internal monologues, socio/political commentary, and an unconventional use of language and grammar. But there are also surprises. There’s more obvious humour in these stories than has previously been the case. Kelman has always been funny (“I cannot eat a Johnny Cash cassette!”, from ‘the same is here again’, being just one example), but it was always a dark, unsettling, almost gallows humour which has become synonymous with the west of Scotland.
While that is still in evidence it does seem that these stories find Kelman in a good place, and good company as a result. The opening story ‘Oh, The Days Ahead’ is as much Seinfeld as it is Samuel Beckett, with the narrator, Andy, kept awake by an unwanted erection (the first of a surprising number in this book!) which he tries to take his mind off by ruminating on how ludicrous the situation he finds himself is, how he got there, and how he can get out.
As well as sex, there are drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and jazz in these stories, and the overall tone is as sensory as it is cerebral. It could be that writing his last novel Dirt Road, (about a father and son who take a trip to the USA and immerse themselves in the local music), has awoken something elemental in Kelman. This feeling is reinforced by the relationships which many of the characters in That Was A Shiver are involved in. In the majority of his fiction the protagonists are more often than not isolated individuals, finding it impossible to form meaningful relationships with others. In many of these new stories, while still being alone with their thoughts, they manage to share their lives with others, or remember when they once did, as in the beautiful, page-long, ‘A Friend’.
Kelman’s use of language has always been unorthodox, (paragraphs of ‘Pick Up The Pieces’ could be described as “concrete fiction”). He writes as we think – in bursts, non-sequiturs, broken streams of consciousness, and considering things we would never say or act on. As he does this his prose becomes poetic, less concerned with the “rules” of grammar and narrative structure. This can disconcert and even alienate readers. While not reaching the extremes of his 2001 novel Translated Accounts, there are challenging passages in That Was A Shiver. However, when taken alongside Dirt Road, you could say that Kelman’s style has reached a pleasing balance between the experimental and the accessible. There will be some who bemoan this, but it may make it more likely that Kelman will finally reach the audience he deserves.
Continuing the theme of unexpected sensibilities, That Was A Shiver also finds Kelman in a reflective mood, with stories dedicated to Mia Carter (‘Back In That Town’), a Professor of English at The University of Texas who has been a long-time supporter of Kelman and his work, and his friend and colleague, poet Tom Leonard (‘That Was A Shiver). These dedications are reminders that Kelman’s life has in large part been defined by his relationships to two places (Glasgow and Texas), and his close links with both, but they are also evidence of a writer taking stock of his life to date.
John Updike said that the aim of his writing was “to give the mundane its beautiful due.” Kelman’s version of this thought is the belief that real drama is to be found in ordinary people’s everyday lives, and that’s not just what and who he writes, it is why he writes. If you want to know more about the human condition then James Kelman is the writer for you, and, while not reaching the heights of his greatest short story collections Greyhound For Breakfast and Not Not While The Giro, That Was A Shiver is a fine addition to his collected works.