People who don't need people

1982 Janine

For a man so utterly alone, Jock MacLeish is hardly lonely. So he's eschewed all meaningful relationships. So he's now haunted by his own insomniac self, in a hotel room in Peebles (or is it Selkirk: what day is it?). But he still keeps himself company, with the women who populate his relentlessly pornographic, if sometimes barely sexual, fantasies. In one night, with one bottle of scotch, one of pills, and a surprise appearance from God, Jock will take his imaginary women and his own dark self to pieces. He'll examine each piece in turn, and cast everything he hates into the fire that's brewing in his single malt. It's not clear if there'll be anything left by morning.

Alasdair Gray writes richly and deeply, reveals rarely and tantalisingly, and is utterly unafraid of experimenting with typography, dialect, narrative... any aspect of the novel is fair game. He captures the grim selfishness of Thatcherite Britain and the sexual power politics of a middle-aged misogynistic misanthrope perfectly. Jock is an intellectual and idealist, but when he capitulates he makes his fortune. Of course, he loses everything in the process---Denny, Alan, Helen, his parents, his self-respect (although he'd deny it if you asked)---but he compensates by steeping his soul in the powerful opium of his girls: Janine, Superb and all the others who relentlessly parade, undress, are kidnapped, resist, parade, undress.

But those girls: they're not just a defect in Jock, they're the problem with this novel. A large chunk of it is ostensibly made of these short stories which, intentionally, aren't believable and never reach a climax (although, true to Gray's typical warts-and-all methodology, Jock reaches one or two). These fantasies are part scalpels that dissect Jock, part phantasms of his boozed state that force the reader to share in his confusion; but they're so annoying and invasive, an interruption rather than a revelation. Only in these does Gray ever hammer a point home too hard: hate Jock, Gray tells us; hate him and pity him. But we don't need any more convincing. Gray's prose in itself carries conviction, and he needn't try as hard as he does in 1982 Janine.