July 2004

Ben McLeod

fiction

The Ends of Our Tethers: 13 Sorry Stories by Alasdair Gray

Alasdair Gray is not my idol. If he were, I would be more willing to heap praises unto everything he did.

I mean the cat is mostly self-educated. He's been writing for nigh on fifty years. He put Lanark together, an engineering feat that is probably his epic. He writes radio productions for the BBC Scotland. He does all the illustrations for his books, iconic but detailed illuminations which shine harsh light on the doodles of other authors like Vollmann and Lennon and Bukowski. But I won't let him slouch. He's raised the bar too high to allow that.

The Ends of Our Tethers has great moments, sure. "No Bluebeard" is an engaging reflection with echoes of early Haruki Murakami, "Job's Skin Game" is a guilty pleasure paired with a catastrophic current event (try and guess which one). It is nice that virtually all of the stories are set in this fresh century. While Mr. Gray tells a good tale of Scotland's past, it's good to see him contemporise and not have it fall flat; his adaptations as the world changes around him are astutely and correctly played, with no jarring inconsistencies that frequently mar the work of older writers trying to write about "the young people"... But while Gray's last short story collection, Unlikely Stories, Mostly, had a sort of unified theme -- Babel and it's ill-fated Tower, empire and the decadence and corruption it brings, The Ends of Our Tethers tackles a more ambiguous theme -- romance, couples and reflections on coupled life -- and does it with much less cohesion.

Gray's usual satire and playfulness is not evident here -- instead, the admittedly tragic atmosphere of "Pillow Talk" is the dominant vibe, a study on the inevitable dissolution of amorous partnerships, or the gentle sorrow of "Swan Burial," an evening-in-the-life of a man who's life and love for it is winding down. And while Mr. Gray's opinions on these unavoidable situations are elegant and poignant, they begin to recycle themselves.

A lot of the entries are less stories and more incidental vignettes, pieces he may have had rattling around for some time that finally found Tethers as their home. Anecdotes like "Property" and "My Ex-Husband" are really short jokes with sad punch lines, "Big Pockets with Buttoned Flaps" is a sort of comedy solicitation of sex that would sit well on the stage, and "Moral Philosophy Exam" is exactly that, a no-win conundrum of the type that either keeps you up at night or you dismiss as irrelevant, depending on your tendency to overthink. (I, obviously, am victim to the former.) Sinkings is a quick retelling of a friend's tale of adolescent betrayal that obviously still chafes decades later. Like a lot of these stories the memories being played are less pleasant recollections of bygone halcyon days and more like running your tongue over the chipped absence of a long broken tooth. And in a sort of David Foster Wallace move, he eliminates the 13th story almost completely, reducing it to it's component jokes -- it survives only as a note in the conveniently titled "End Notes" and "Critic Fuel" (thanks, mister!)

The places where this collection shines with Gray's distinct polish are "Aiblins," a sort of inadvertent confession of doubts about his time as a creative writing teacher, "15 February 2003," his (fictional?) reportage on an anti-war march, and the most recognisably Alasdair Gray bit of all, "Wellbeing" -- the final segment of a pamphlet he authored about Scottish home rule. "Wellbeing" is full of that disjointed and sadly reflective action that made Lanark such a hoot.

All of these stories huddle around the themes of lost love and regret, though, without building to any great sweeping punch, although "Wellbeing" is unmistakably the best keystone for the collection. Perhaps I'm just feeling let down that this collection isn't shot through with the same weirdness and low-to-the-ground vertigo I loved so much in Lanark.

The Ends of Our Tethers: 13 Sorry Stories by Alasdair Gray
Canongate
ISBN: 1841955477
176 Pages