When these columns started in November 2009 I suggested that there was a noticeable change happening in Scottish writing, and attempted to answer why. Here’s a short excerpt to give you a flavour:
‘You can argue the reasons for this new confidence in Scottish writing, when it began, or even if it exists at all, and perhaps we will in the months ahead. However it appears as if people are finally concentrating on the what, how and why; three of the most important questions to be asked (whether reading or otherwise), rather than worrying about who belongs where; to my mind one of the least important.’
I would suggest that this situation not only continues but positively flourishes. Scottish writing is in the rudest of health, no matter what you may have heard elsewhere, and that is what this column attempts to reflect. Those discussed include living legends who continue to be published, such as Alasdair Gray, Agnes Owens and James Kelman. There have been names who have reached far and wide in their influence like A.L. Kennedy, Ali Smith, Irvine Welsh and Andrew O’Hagan, as well some lesser known, or even forgotten, writers including Gordon Legge, Duncan McLean, Suhyal Saadi and Doug Johnstone. There is a greater range of voices and styles on offer than there has ever been. An example of this can be found in the shape of a man who can often be spotted in and around all the good things happening in Scottish writing, like a real-life version of Woody Allen’s ‘Zelig’. His name is Rodge Glass.
Glass wears so many hats that it can be difficult to keep track of his ever-changing titfers. Music fans may know him as one part of Burnt Island, whose album ‘Music and Maths’ was widely well received in 2010. If you’ve been reading these columns for the last few years you may recognise the name as the editor of ‘The Year of Open Doors’ anthology which was reviewed here in July 2010
Perhaps more likely you’ll know him as the recent biographer of Alasdair Gray (a terrific book called ‘A Secretary’s Biography’ which makes a great companion piece to Gray’s own ‘A Life in Pictures) but it should not be forgotten that Glass is primarily a novelist, and a very fine one at that. His latest novel, which comes out early next year, will be ‘Bring Me the Head of Ryan Giggs’, but his debut ‘No Fireworks’ deserves to be revisited.
It is a novel about the complexities of family and which touches upon death as much as it does life. Set over eight days, the novel has at its centre Abe Stone, a sixty something who has to come to terms with the death of his overbearing and controlling 93 year-old mother Evelyn, someone who continues to directly effect his life even after passing away. The novel opens at Evelyn’s funeral and it is this event that causes Abe to reassess his life. What this reflection reveals is not to his liking.
I said recently, when talking about Alan Bissett’s novel ‘Pack Men’, that considering the central role that religion continues to play in Scottish life it is surprising that so few novels deal with it or the rituals and divisions that accompany it. ‘No Fireworks’ is fascinating as it portrays the life of a Jewish family and goes into knowing detail about that particular faith. Abe is shaped by his religion while also trying to escape its influence and this struggle will be familiar to anyone with any degree of religious upbringing. To quote The Eagles, ‘You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave’.
While this is Abe’s tale, the supporting cast are just as memorable. Abe’s old before her time granddaughter Lucille appears the most sensible member of the family, at least now that Evelyn has died, but Glass makes sure that we never forget that for all her complexity she is a child. It is Abe’s inescapable immaturity that bonds them so closely rather than vice versa. The similarly biblically named Rachel seduces Abe in a car park before becoming part of the family, and the enigmatic Henry is the successful ying to Abe’s woe begotten yang. Add in the local charity shop Christians, Abe’s long suffering son Ben, and the put upon Rabbi, and you realise that Glass has put together a cast of characters who are recognisable and memorable, and it is they who are the greatest success of ‘No Fireworks’.
It is only right that the musical interlude this month comes from Burnt Island. Here they are with the first track from ‘Music and Maths’. This is ‘A Supposedly Funny Thing I’ll Never Do Again’
There’s a melancholy at the heart of ‘No Fireworks’ that is genuinely moving. The path of Abe’s unremarkable life is one that has opportunities, promise and relationships strewn along the way. But it is not a bleak book. There is fantastic dry and fatalistic sense of humour that means that Abe never becomes overly self-flagellatory or pitying. He is at all times aware of the absurdity of life, and his in particular. While it may not exactly have been nasty, brutish and short his has been a life full of disappointment and which will be over far too quickly. If you like your comedy black, and your humour wry, then ‘No Fireworks’ is for you. It is that rarest of things in that it examines an ordinary individual in an extraordinary way, reminding us that life is not about the destination, but the journey
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next Month’s Novel: Toni Davidson’s ‘Scar Culture’ is another one of those novels which fell between the cracks in Scottish literature. It has been described as a Scottish ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, but in truth it is darker and more disturbing than that.
‘Scar Culture’ is a devastating psychological novel that deals with the subject of abuse, examining both victim and perpetrator, in a horrific and honest way that few would dare. Never an easy read, it remains as relevant and important today as when it was first published in 1999.
- Toni Davidson Scar Culture (Feb)
- John Burnside The Devil’s Footprints (Mar)
- Stuart David Nalda Said (Apr)
- Zoe Strachan Spin Cycle (May)
- Ewan Morrison Swung (Jun)