There is a quote on the cover of my paperback of Duncan McLean’s ‘Bunker Man’ from Cosmopolitan Magazine that claims ‘Duncan McLean is Scotland’s answer to Roddy Doyle’. If a fan of Doyle were to pick up ‘Bunker Man’ on this recommendation they would be in for a shock, particularly if their knowledge of Doyle was restricted to ‘The Barrytown Trilogy’. ‘Bunker Man’ is an astonishing novel; visceral, nasty, violent and grim. You think you’ve read disturbing Scottish fiction? You ain’t read nothin’ yet.

The novel is the story of Rob Catto, and when we meet him he is newly-married and settling into his job as a janitor in a school in the north-east of Scotland. At the beginning he is our voice of reason, an everyman who has to deal with nothing more taxing than a wife with middle-class aspirations, and filthy graffiti on the toilet walls. His descent into unspeakable violence (which is often sexual) and depravity should be unbelievable but it is the quality of McLean’s writing that makes the novel work. Don’t mistake this as shocking for its own sake. There are no neat redemptive outcomes, or punishments, to make the reader feel better as you find in Irvine Welsh’s ‘Marabou Stork Nightmares’, perhaps the most comparative contemporary Scottish novel. McLean is brave enough to let us come to our own conclusions.

Reading this novel forces you to face your own moral boundaries, and this is often an uneasy experience. You might disagree with the perspective of a particular novel but that does not mean that the novel is a bad one, or at least I would hope that wasn’t the case. There is an acceptance that what you read is distinguishable from your personal beliefs. A work in which it appears that an author expresses an attitude to life that is so objectionable that we cannot even ‘accept’ that attitude is one which we may be tempted to dismiss, but we shouldn’t be so hasty. It’s always easier to look away. But when you engage with literature you have to be prepared to give as well as receive, and this can sometimes be an uncomfortable relationship. Strong feelings emerge. Many people will hate this novel but even then they should not dismiss it.

The novel is filled with jealousy, sex, anger, power and obsession. Rob fears the worst about his nemesis the mysterious Bunker Man, but Rob turns out to be worse than his worst fears. It is as if his paranoia unlocks the door to his own suppressed feelings.  The Bunker Man of the title is another in the long line of Scottish ‘others’ which include Gil Martin in James Hogg’ ‘The Private Memoirs and  Confessions of a Justified Sinner’, Edward Hyde and  the ‘Tapeworm’ in Irvine Welsh’s ‘Filth’. Mclean doesn’t take the easy route of suggesting that Bunker Man is a figment of a damaged mind as the above do, he is all too real, and this makes Rob’s actions all the more despicable.

There is a single musical reference in the book that I can find, and it refers to Rob’s favourite song Robert Johnson’s ‘Sweet Home Chicago’, so, as a musical interlude, here it is:

Rob has three relationships that come to define his life. One is with his wife Karen, one is with the Bunker Man, and there is one with schoolgirl Sandra. It is this last relationship that is the most disturbing, at least until the final few pages. Sandra is obviously someone who is desperate for love which she doesn’t find at home or with friends, and believes that sex is the way that she can find it in the wider world. Rob takes terrible advantage of this, treating her like a character from a particularly nasty porn film. Their relationship is all the worse for the growing realisation that the one person who could help her is going to be the one that takes away what remains of her childhood. Both Rob and Sandra have needs, but it is so one-sided a relationship as to be unbearable. Sandra is the innocent who the reader sympathises with most, and to treat her in the manner Rob, and McLean does, doesn’t just risk alienating the reader, but deliberately confronts them.

The novel that ‘Bunker Man’ reminds me of most is Alexander Trocchi’s ‘Young Adam’. Trocchi is a Scottish novelist who is often overlooked when the canon of Scottish literature is recited, but he is of huge importance. He is the writer who embraced the existentialism of Sartre, and the attitude of the ‘beat’ generation of Ginsberg, Kerouac and Carr, and gave them a Scottish twist. I’ll be looking at ‘Young Adam’ in August, suffice to say here that any writer who caused Hugh MacDiarmid to call him ‘cosmopolitan scum’ has a lot going for him. Duncan Mclean is the Scottish novelist who comes closest to asking similar questions to Trocchi, but the style is all his own.

Those questions concern personal morality and social acceptability. What happens when we reject social norms and embrace our darkest desires? It appears it never ends well. Duncan Mclean has written a novel which is brave and shocking. Sometimes we should face the darker areas of the human psyche to reaffirm our own feelings, or, more importantly, to question them. It deserves to be viewed alongside ‘American Psycho’, ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Lolita’ as fictions which unsettle and challenge. Rob Catto is not an anti-hero, he is no hero at all, and once you’ve turned the last page you won’t be feeling good about yourself or any one else. This is a portrayal of a descent into madness that should unsettle all readers as it makes us face the distinct possibility that all of us are hanging on to sanity with the most brittle of fingernails.

Alistair

Further thoughts on Scottish books, film, music, comedy, theatre and the like can be found at scotswhayhae which now has a Facebook home.

The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:

Next Month’s Novel: Kevin MacNeil was the author of one of the best Scottish novels of last year with ‘A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde’, one I can heartily recommend, and next month we will be looking at his debut novel ‘The Stornoway Way’.

I’ve found that this is another book which really separates the opinions of those who have read it. Some claim that nothing happens (which I think is more or less the point) and that the central character is unlikable. But lots of Scottish literary characters are unlikable (see above as proof), and I wonder if setting the novel in Stornoway has confounded some readers’ expectations. Perhaps they thought they were going to read a gentler novel, as if heavy drinking and bad behaviour stopped at city-limits. What do I think? Well you can find out next month, but there are passages in ‘The Stornoway Way’ that are as good as anything I’ve read in the last 20 odd-years.

Next 5 books:

  1. Kevin MacNeil The Stornoway Way (Apr)
  2. Ali Smith The Accidental (May)
  3. Robin Jenkins The Changeling (Jun)
  4. Doug Johnstone The Ossians (Jul)
  5. Alexander Trocchi’s Young Adam (Aug)

Comments

  1. I read ‘Bunker Man’, when it first came out. At the time I found it a disturbing account of a mans descent into paedophilia and murder. I presumed naming the protagonist Catto was a nod to the Catto long barrow mound in Aberdeenshire, the burial mound and possible site of battles with Viking invaders, warriors noted for their murderous raping ways, hence a nod to Rob Catto. At the time I felt it was the work of a writer pushing himself and his readership to see how low he could take them. Ultimatley there is no redemption for reader or writer. I gave the book to someone I didn’t particularly like as a farewell headfuck.All these years on I think I’d still feel the same way…

  2. This is the book that I worried most about featuring in this column. I would personally worry about anyone who read it and said they ‘enjoyed’ it, but then I’m sure some people have, just as some, perfectly sensible people, enjoy the most excessive horror films. It’s one of the toughest reads that Scottish writing has to offer, and if that’s what it’s like to read I’d love to know what pushed McLean to write it.

    Perhaps you’re right Marl, and it was an undertaking in excess, to see just what was acceptable to a reading public. As I say above, I don’t think this is a bad novel, but it is one that deeply disturbs me.

  3. I’m re-reading Bunker Man at the moment, and I’m sorry to say that I am enjoying it. Rob’s descent into madness is believable and riveting. It is a horrible book in my many ways though, so don’t feel you have to worry about me too much.

    I’ve also been enjoying reading your other reviews (instead of working). Keep up the good work, I’de love to see you go back to Kelman and do A Dissatisfaction – a favourite of mine.

  4. Alistair, I don’t think I’ve read a better review/analysis of Bunker Man. Thank you for taking the trouble to try and understand it: many can’t be bothered to do so, reacting with knee-jerk disgust or disapproval.

    Maybe I set myself up for this by concealing my own intentions as an author. One of my drives was to write a strongly pro-feminist narrative; I felt at the time that Scotland needed such things (maybe it still does.) In my early drafts I tried to guide the reader towards noticing the feminist message by having characters named after feminist writers and thinkers I was interested in (e.g. Catherine MacKinnon, whose writings about the dehumanising effects of pornography were influential on me at that time (e.g. Towards a Feminist Theory of the State.) However, I soon felt that to name characters in this way was both too crude a signal and too overt an attempt to control the reader’s response. So I invented neutral names. (And no reviewer has ever mentioned MacKinnon or Andrea Dworkin or Susan Faludi, despite their being everywhere in the novel, albeit un-named.)

    I remember thinking at the time, ‘The feminist message is as subtle as a sledgehammer. No one needs me to point it out. It’s there on every page, I don’t need to do anything as crass and simplistic as calling the teacher with the porn magazine taped to her classroom door Miss Dworkin.’ I was wrong! I did need to do something simplistic!

    Likewise, I had originally intended to have an epigraph, John Major’s words from 1993 that ‘Society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less.’ That outrageous statement from a political leader was one of the spurs to write the book in the first place: what happens when a society encourages its citizens to condemn rather than trying to understand? Rob Catto happens… (And so does the Justified Sinner: you’re right to say that Bunker Man is yet another book attempting to highjack Hogg’s novel for its own purposes.)

    Again, I decided that I didn’t want to steer the reader so overtly, so dropped the epigraph. Interestingly, Irvine Welsh used that very quote as an epigraph for Maribou Stork Nightmares, which came out at about the same time as my book. Irvine also had the narrator commenting in an overtly judgemental way on his and other characters’ behaviour. I would argue that that is less artistically satisfying than my hands-off approach, but I have to admit that it helped reviewers and other readers form their responses more quickly and easily than was the case with Bunker Man.

    Well, I have gone on long enough. It’s 18 years since I wrote Bunker Man, and probably 15 since I read it: you probably know it better than I do, now. But reading your piece reminded me of the novel, and reawakened my interest in it and what I was trying to achieve. Whether I succeeded or failed is up to the readers to decide, not me, but I am heartened by the fact that you understand the book very much as I do. To that extent I must have written something that communicated what I wanted ito, and I’m happy to find out that is the case.

  5. I really appreciate you getting in touch Duncan, and am so glad you enjoyed the column. It’s fascinating to read your comments about your intentions compared to how the book was received. I think discussions about the dehumanising effects of pornography in particular are more important now than they ever have been, and ‘Bunker Man’ should have started a wider discussion. Unfortunately the forums where such a discussion should take place are unwilling, or unable, to do so.

    It’s interesting to compare this review to the most recent Indelible Ink which looks at Ewan Morrison’s ‘Swung’, another controversial novel. Those who dismiss such books as extreme fail to realise that we ignore the questions they ask at their peril. They will continue to condemn with no attempt to understand.