What is left to be written about Lanark by Alasdair Gray?

Nothing…so we may as well end this article here…..

No, that would be rather dull and if there is anything that Lanark and Alasdair Gray don’t deserve it is a dull and unimaginative review of the book. Published in 1981, the book had been formed over a number of decades by Gray, with chapters and characters peeking out along the way until the official release. It is said that Gray first started working on Lanark back in 1954, with book one being completed in 1963. Two of the four books are set in Glasgow with the other two being set in Unthank, a fantasy city that bears striking resemblances to Glasgow.

Storyboard from the film script of Lanark by Alasdair Gray

Storyboard from the film script of Lanark by Alasdair Gray

Order, in life, can sometimes be chaotic

One of the greatest things about Lanark is that you can read it in a number of different ways. This doesn’t only refer to the fact that there are four books, ordered 3, 1,2 and 4 but it is also refers to what you can take from the book. The stories of Duncan Thaw can be viewed as the story of a boy growing into a man and his descending route into madness but conversely, it can be seen as a great historical look back on the city. Gray has a tremendous way with words and the streets of Glasgow’s East End come to life when describing the way Thaw would play as a youngster. As Thaw grows older, the buzz and giddy excitement of city life comes to the front and positively crackles along. Sauchiehall Street and the Glasgow School of Art may be very different now from the way they were back then but you can still join the dots in the people and places. The fact that all of this is being seen from the eyes of a dysfunctional and at times very anti-social character says everything you need to know about Gray’s writing.

Empathy with the characters…even if they’re hard to love

No matter what point you are in the story, you can always see from Thaw’s and Lanark’s side and even though there were times when both behaved despicably, you couldn’t help but feel drawn to the characters and their side. The side characters all play their part in the stories and at times you can imagine parallel books running through the lives of characters like Laidlaw, Marjory and even Duncan’s father.

For a book so weighty, in size and in ambition, it is perhaps a surprise to find so many moments of great humour in Lanark. The childhood of Duncan Thaw seemed a happy one, albeit with dark moments thrown in but many of the passages leave a smile on your face. This is perhaps due to the way the reader can almost substitute the stories of Thaw in the street with other children or at home with his parents for their own memories but again, the way that the characters interact makes for a great likeability.

Where there is light though there needs to be darkness and at times, Lanark can make especially heavy reading. The descent into madness of Thaw and eventual death is chilling with images and thoughts of murder competing with a gripping tension, as though you are almost breathing at the same convoluted rate of Thaw. There is no let up in this darkness during the tales of Lanark, whose dragonhide illness seems to mirror the eczema that plagued Thaw.

The links between the two books will inevitably be the main topic point for many critics and there are enough points of evidence to accept that Thaw is Lanark. Some will argue the Unthank set of books are perhaps a Hell version of Glasgow, others will say a futuristic sci-fi variation while some will argue it is an alternative reality. No matter what your interpretation, it doesn’t really detract from the enjoyment of the tale and knowing Alasdair Gray; he probably enjoys the ambiguous nature of the connection between the books and of the length of time spent dissecting them.

Alasdair Gray author of Lanark - Photo by Eamonn McCabe

Alasdair Gray author of Lanark - Photo by Eamonn McCabe

A mere webpage wouldn’t be enough to do justice to Lanark, a full website would struggle to properly examine the book and even then, it would only be one person’s or one team’s view of the book. The only sensible thing to do in any overview of Lanark is to recommend you go and get your own copy and read through for yourself.

There are countless tales about Glasgow, its citizens and its achievements but the fact that we were unanimous in making this the first Glasgow book we wanted featured on the site hopefully says more than any review could.