Skip to main content

Lanark: A Life in 4 Books by Alasdair Gray (Books 2021, 19)

I read this a long time ago, and the strange thing now is that everything I remembered of it happens in the first two books: that is, in Book 3 and Book 1. As I’m sure you know, the internal books are ordered 3, 1, 2, 4.

Which sort of suggests that I didn’t finish it all those years ago, but I’m sure that isn’t the case. There were odd moments of the slightest sense of the familiar in the other books, so I guess it’s just vagaries.

Anyway, it was and remains a monumental work. It struck me as odd that the blurb describes it as ‘a modern vision of hell.’ I had never thought of it in those terms. True, Lanark’s situation is dark, difficult, and confusing, and he can be seen as Thaw after death, if Thaw dies at the end of Book 2, which seems likely. But hell? That seems extreme. Lanark has difficulties, but he’s not in a state of eternal torment.

He is, however, quite a frustrating character. He is thrown into a situation — several situations — where he doesn’t understand what is going on, or how the world works; and for the most part he doesn’t ask even the most obvious questions, or make any attempt to gain understanding. So he’s not so much protagonist as a character being pushed around by circumstance. Or by his author, whom we meet in the fourth-wall-destroying epilogue towards the end of the book.

Much more obviously, Lanark’s experiences in Unthank and beyond are a satire of late-stage capitalism. Which you could say is a form of hell, so maybe that’s what the blurb writer was getting at.

You can sign up below if you’d like to get these posts by email

Email: Name (optional):

More details, and other ways to get posts, here.