Every Short Story (1951-2012) by Alasdair Gray

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Every Short Story (1951-2012) by Alasdair Gray
WORK AS IF YOU LIVE IN THE EARLY DAYS OF A BETTER WORLD*
Canongate Books Ltd 2012 – 934 pages

* As an aside, this cover ‘sub-title’ resonates, to my mind, with ‘A Dead Monument To Once Ancient Hope’.

MY GESTALT REAL-TIME REVIEW OF THIS BOOK WILL TAKE PLACE IN THE COMMENT STREAM BELOW AS AND WHEN I READ IT:-

20 thoughts on “Every Short Story (1951-2012) by Alasdair Gray

  1. The Star
    “Marbles are for the playground, not the classroom.”
    This touching, transcendental boyhood tale of seeing and becoming (‘gawn out’ – in two senses) and it means a lot to me, and not only because of my obsession with marbles from 1948 onward.
    I hope to read and review at least one story daily from this book – but normal life may intervene, if not normal death! Most of these stories, at first sight, seem shortish. As are most lives, however long they last, I’d say.
    Stars, too.
    The book also seems crammed with delightful artwork, to which I’m cannot do justice, so I won’t try.
    [My thanks to Rhys Hughes for drawing my attention to this book. I know I have read and enjoyed Alasdair Gray’s work quite a few years ago, but I didn’t know till now of the existence of this book.]

  2. The Spread of Ian Nicol
    “Gradually the lobes of his brain separated and a bone shutter formed between them.”
    This is the best, most believable, in fact the only, story of an autonomous bifurcation of a human being that I think I have ever read. Involving a spin-off means of replacing sexual reproduction for human regeneration. The story’s last sentence is an ironically anti-natalist gem, also implying its own bifurcation of a certain understanding of what that ending itself actually implies! Read it and see. [Also seems an obliquely appropriate story to read on the very day that single sex marriages are first legally allowable in the UK.] Riveting.

  3. Thanks, Rhys.
    The Cause of Recent Changes
    “It’s like all big organisations. The staff are so numerous that you can go where you like if you look confident enough.”
    You need that sort of confidence to enter this book, to span such a book of cerebral, absurd-didactic, frivolous, predictive-serious, poetic-visionary fiction – but this is me being predictive, too, about what I envisage in its catacombs of prose – and I’m not sure when this story was written but it was a Colditz chance remark that presaged global warming or was that solar blitz? The future world as a modern art collage, I guess. And, oh yes, my own chance remarks still chip at things, as good as yours do. (Can reviews retrocausally change the books they are reviewing?)

  4. A Unique Case
    From a precisely named Ian Nicol to another: Reverend Dr Phelim MacLeod, and sharing the shatterable scintilla of bodily existence and its ‘doll-house’ underground growth, but here in Phelim’s head, from ‘the cause of recent changes’ – we follow big and small alike, wondering what we are ourselves, if not uniquely wondering. Not the butterfly effect so much as perforations of chaos.
    I know meanwhile that I am unique. And as I am, no-one else is.

  5. The Comedy of the White Dog
    “I’ve been to one or two parties here. There are never many guests but I’ve always felt there are other parties going on in rooms of the house I don’t know about.”
    A sort of Guy Endore version of Graves’ ‘matronly’ White Goddess? Overlapping archetypes as well as genders, like in all good parties. But that’s irrelevant, as is irrelevancy itself. Anyway, I’ve now noticed that this book has longer stories as well as shorter ones, and this is an engagingly deadpan example of a longer one. It deals with the absurd as a light vulnerable touch of romantic yearnings among the young, a memorable dream of a situation comedy. Even with the tradition of the future bride and groom staying away from each other on the night before the wedding. I think there are other parties going on in this huge book. I think I will continue my onward contents-linear explorations…

    [Self-indulgently, I provide a link here to one of my own stories about a situational comic house party that possibly Hydes from the Gray Dog’s Jekyll. American spelling.]

  6. The Problem
    Another touching, potentially romantic situation-light comedy, not a million miles away from the relationship in the previous story, where the sun expresses some angst about her spots.

  7. The Crank That Made The Revolution
    “Imagine a household appliance devised to shampoo carpets, mash pottoes and darn holes in socks whenever it feels like it. A duck is in a similar situation,…”
    This deadpan story of a young Inventor and his Grannie reminds me of a blend of Rhys Hughes’s Young Dictator novel and of Heath Robinson himself of whose contraptions I have a book… AG’s illustrations for this story in the Canongate book have a similar contraptive contrivance of sensibility…
    Influence to be real influence needs both quirky and serious inventiveness, and an outrageous end wordplay to make us see history (or the story itself) anew.

  8. berlinbear-1The Great Bear Cult: “The greatest part of a psychiatrist’s work is with people who feel inadequate as human beings, and considered objectively most of them are physically and mentally inadequate; but dressed in properly padded skin they make surprisingly adequate bears …”
    Caused by the coal shortages of 1931, this Great Bear Cult of real British history is treated here engagingly as a continuity for a screen documentary that was eventually banned. Not many now remember it, even as an archetype through our genes, but some of us do. I suspect it is akin to the subsequent colour injection conspiracy block when we all started seeing colour for the first time around 1967 (I remember it well) but hardly anyone remembers seeing everything in black and white before then. I personally do have knowledge of the Great Bear Cult as presumably AG does, too. This piece cheered me up. Alongside is a photo of me with a Berlin bear, taken by my wife in 2010, and on this old blog page are more photos of what I called in 2010 The RETROCAUSAL BEAR. A few people have contacted me since then with their ‘memories’ of the Great Bear Cult. I lived in South Croydon from 1970 to 1994 and I knew the Busby family.

  9. The Start of the Axletree
    “…one old exhausted historian and a strange foreign servant without lids on his eyes–“
    For me, this is a genuine masterpiece. You rarely encounter such items of literature even in a long reading life like mine. It conjures a geometry of configured-civilisation as wheels, a geometry upon which to allow the reader to hang his or her own thoughts and to envisage the moral, rational, absurdist structure of religion, of history (as a Toynbeean science as well as literature), of the forces in fiscal economics, of various pecking orders represented by the concept of the human need for distractive gods or land-based emperors – plus other states of Being. And the need to dream. Eventually a cone-shaped ‘dead monument to once ancient hope’, as I would personally call it. Much here to cohere later in the quiet beyond these initial reactions by this real-time review.
    [Self-indulgently again, here (password: alasdairgray) is a link to a tiny story (‘The Tallest King’) by myself that was first published in the late 1980s and may have some humble bearing on certain nuggets of Gray’s anatomy of the Axletree.]

  10. Five Letters From An Eastern Empire
    First Letter
    “Since I was now the tallest man aboard I had to disembark first.”
    So far, I sense this is a sequel-prequel of the previous Axletree story, working through the practicalities of that story’s quantitative easing of the soul. This first chapter of the next story or novella is the first letter home from Bohu to his parents, Bohu being the serious side of a bi-polarity of two Poet Laureates to the Emperor, both of them on a barge journey to the central palace along with the Emperor’s headmasters and accountants… No, I cannot sufficiently convey in real-time the abased pilgrimage within the great walled hub or the ‘etiquette’ of this scenario; the etiquette is for anyone reading this review to join in this envisaged pilgrimage and read the first letter before I read and review and perhaps ‘spoil’ the second letter home, as I infer the next chapter to be. All I can really say so far, is that I am entranced…and will want to let this substantial work linger longer in my reading-life till I can’t resist its impelling me to continue reading it sooner rather than later before some postman in the guise of the head-lease author has time to start altering Bohu’s next letter!

  11. Second Letter
    “Each of you loved and hated a different bit of me.
    With this second letter to his parents, Bohu’s poignant ‘backstory’ is slowly revealed, if we are to believe this letter (it says later that this is his last letter something that the umbrella title contradicts) – but I feel that Bohu, who was earlier described by me, but not by his first letter, as a Poet Laureate, is being groomed, by the emperor’s order, via headmasters and escorted by janitors, and is both protected and exposed through his situation, encouraged to write this letter to his estranged, now lower-down-the-pecking-order parents, ostensibly to act as some personal catharsis but also, I am wondering, so that he can divulge things that the headmasters need to know.
    Tohu, the other part of the bi-polarity (my expression, not the letter’s), is more of a vestigial growth upon Bohu (I infer) rather that a balanced equal half, while the emperor himself, it is implied, is also shrunken (and blind). What do I believe? I believe this novella, if that is what it is, continues to seep ineluctably into my own mind and I will let it ferment there gently till at least tomorrow when I shall attempt to interpret the third letter. (Meanwhile, whoever is overseeing Bohu’s prose is certainly a great teacher, judging by these first two letters.)

  12. Third Letter
    “It is true that the world is so packed with the present moment that the past, a far greater quantity, can only gain entrance through the narrow gate of a mind. […] Remember that the world is one vast graveyard of defunct cities, all destroyed by the shifting markets they could not control, and all compressed by literature into a handful of poems.”
    …so speaks one of the headmasters (head masters?) through Bohu in his third letter to his parents, a letter which in many ways paradoxically bears out that his second letter was indeed his last letter to his parents. To give you more about this or of the nature of Bohu’s description of meeting the emperor (possibly one of the most striking scenes in all literature compressed or otherwise) would spoil something in your real-time reading of it. I’d only say that I am now unaccountably reminded of ‘The Holy Sinner’ by Thomas Mann where the future Pope Gregory was shrunk to the size of a hedgehog. You may be reminded of something else, like some works of another Thomas, Ligotti? I am following some etiquette here of not unravelling too many of this work’s staggering images and thoughts – but by simply saying such a thing I am trusting that you will not be able to resist seeking out this book to read it for yourself. Or it may be because I have not yet unravelled some of these things myself!

  13. Fourth Letter
    “Perhaps when I was small I had gazed as greedily for the mere useless fun of it, but for years I had only used my eyes professionally, to collect poetical knowledge, or shielded them, as required by the etiquette.”
    A lesson for us all. Legacy seekers as a form of etiquette to distract from a wish for death – but this letter has a wistful sense of heady dalliance with love and life, by also creating that one poem that will outlast us – denying the fashion these days for dwelling in Ligottian anti-Natalism or for espousing a singular puppetry that controls us like its own puppets. Not ‘a conspiracy against the human race’ so much as an idyll to something that transcends us, despite the despair of those around us. Just thoughts that went through my mind, but Bohu still wrestles with his letters: written not to a stark, ventriloquisable puppetry or poetry but to an idealised parentage, and there is one more letter yet to read. Or his head-master (Alas Dare?) wrestles with them in his stead.

  14. Last Letter
    …turns out to be a surprisingly short letter – a coda to the symphony, this truly great work…hinting that the best results can stem from what you didn’t intend but you have to intend something at least to find out what you didn’t intend. Only dare to open oneself to this conundrum or die in the process. Toynbee’s challenge and response. The Laureate’s apparental bi-polarity is indeed capable of decoding. There is more to this than I expected, too, before I turned the page to this last letter, to the last letter of both poets’ names – u. You.

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