Alan Spence is one of those writers who seems to stand apart from other contemporary Scottish writers. I’ve been thinking about why this might be, and I think it is a matter of style. If you think of the adjectives that are most often applied to modern Scottish fiction they will include; grim, gritty, urban, realistic, etc, and they don’t apply to Alan Spence. Instead he writes with a gentle touch and there is brightness to his prose which means that he is genuinely funny without being shocking. In a sense he could be considered one of Scotland’s most radical writers.
There are writers who have featured in Indelible Ink whom I would compare him to; namely Robin Jenkins, Ali Smith and fellow Buddhist Anne Donovan, and like these three there is a mild surrealism, and even a spirituality, to be found in his novels. ‘Way To Go’, his 1998 novel, is a terrific example of this, and a great introduction to his work. It follows the life of Neil McGraw, a man who inherits the family business which happens to be an undertakers. If any budding writers are not sure how to begin a story then how about this for a great example:
‘I sat up in the coffin, reading a comic and eating a sherbet fountain. Bit the tip off the liquorice, sucked the sherbet through it. Mix of the two tastes, that was the thing. The sticky sweet liquorice, a dark taste, flat. Then the rush of the sherbet, sharp and tart. Wersh. The word my father would use, screwing up his face. Wersh. You could taste the word in your mouth’.
That sets the tone for a novel that examines different attitudes to death with a sense of humour that while black is never sensational. The question that is at the centre of the novel, ‘What happens when you die’, is obviously unanswerable, but that doesn’t stop Spence from attempting to do just that. McGraw’s obsession with death stops him from fully living his life, but this is not in any sense a depressing book. The reader is aware of the absurdity of McGraw’s life. It is a story about growing up and escaping a life which had been planned by his father. The familial ties are central to the story and Spence captures the odd relationships which often occur within the family unit. You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.
McGraw decides that the way forward is to celebrate death, but this is a way to punish his dead father. It’s post mortem rebellion. The novel asks questions about how we view death in the West and compares it with other cultures views on death and the process of celebrating life. There is a lovely juxtaposition between mourning and deciding to celebrate life in a manner which can be considered artistic. Death is debunked as something that should never be discussed, and ‘Way to Go’ takes on this taboo subject head on.
Spence is also looking at many aspects of Scottish life, comparing them with other cultures, and McGraw displays a desire to sample a life that will take him away from Scotland, but there is also, ultimately, a desire to return. Home may be a foreign country for him, but it becomes one which has a hold which is unexpected. There is a sense that in accepting mortality you have to accept your own upbringing and that there is a destiny that is hard to ignore.
One of the songs that gets played when McGraw is organising his alternative funerals is Meat Loaf’s ‘Bat Out Of Hell’, and I need no other excuse than that to show the video here:
Spence is that rare thing, a Scottish ‘feel good’ writer. He deals with serious subjects in his fiction, such as religion, culture, love and death, but does so in a life affirming manner. Perhaps it is this positivity, his spirituality, which sets him apart. Scottish culture still has problems embracing such concepts.
It is still a mystery to me that he is constantly overlooked in discussions about Scottish literature, but then it has taken me twenty four of these columns to mention him so I’m hardly helping matters. Writing this one, and revisiting ‘Way To Go’, has sent me back to his other novel ‘The Magic Flute’ and his short story collection ‘The Colours They Are Fine’. If you’re thinking about what to read next I suggest you try some Alan Spence. His fiction, and his poetry, celebrate life; not just his own, but all life. I guarantee he will improve your own in the most charming and unexpected way.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next Month’s Novel: A.L. Kennedy is a writer who just seems to improve with every novel. Since being named one of Granta’s best young British novelists in 1993 (a feat she repeated in 2003) she has been rightly thought of as one of the most interesting writers around. Her early novels are worth reading, but she really moved to another level with the publication of ‘Paradise’ in 2004. She followed with the astonishing ‘Day’ in 2007 and the reviews of her latest novel ‘The Blue Book’ suggests that her run of great novels is set to continue.
‘Paradise’ is an amazing depiction of one woman’s alcoholism. I place it alongside Ron Butlin’s ‘The Sound of My Voice’ as one of the most affecting explorations into that particular disease, and I can’t offer higher praise than that. If you’re thinking that the last thing you want to read is another book about alcohol then be assured, this is no ordinary novel just as A.L. Kennedy is no ordinary writer.
- A.L. Kennedy Paradise (Oct)
- Alice Thompson The Existential Detective (Nov)
- Agnes Owens Bad Attitudes (Dec)
- Rodge Glass No Fireworks (Jan)
- Toni Davidson Scar Culture (Feb)