At last year’s Edinburgh Book Festival James Kelman complained that genre fiction was being packaged and promoted to the detriment of ‘literary’ fiction, such as, by coincidence, his own. His argument was that we don’t properly celebrate and engage with the country’s ‘difficult’ literature preferring the comfort of genre. He is reported to have claimed that if Scotland had an equivalent of the Nobel Prize for literature we would give it to a writer of ‘detective fiction or else some kind of child writer’, by which I assume he means a writer of children’s fiction rather than the writing of a child.
Louise Welsh ‘The Cutting Room’
by Alistair Braidwood
Of course Kelman knew that his outburst would receive publicity, and the real target of his rage was the booksellers and they way they choose to promote fiction. It was not necessarily directed at the writers themselves, although it did hint at an artistic snobbery that is not like the man. I know that he was just shouting his corner, but such accusations suggest that genre fiction is not of literary worth. This is clearly not true as any reader of Conan Doyle, Poe, Chandler or Bradbury would acknowledge. Louise Welsh’s fiction, which at first inspection may appear to belong to the ‘thriller’ genre, gives the reader so much more.
‘The Cutting Room’ is a stunning debut novel. It is noir in every sense of the word. It is worth quoting critic George Tuttle here who explains noir with the following description; ‘the protagonist is usually not a detective, but instead either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. He is someone tied directly to the crime, not an outsider called to solve or fix the situation. Other common characteristics are the emphasis on sexual relationships and the use of sex to advance the plot and the self-destructive qualities of the lead characters.’ All of these apply to ‘The Cutting Room’.
Welsh’s novel is dark, dirty, dangerous and erotic with a gothic sensibility that excites and unsettles. Welsh manages to create real tension throughout, and in the central character of Rilke, Welsh has created one of Scottish literature’s most memorable men. Here is an intellectual, lonely man who finds brief solace in drink and casual sexual encounters, a man whose strong sense of right and wrong draw him into places he would rather avoid, but where he is ultimately comfortable. There are echoes of Mr Hyde, or even James Hogg’s Robert Wringham, in his character as he lives a life that exists mainly in the dark, and is drawn to the seedy and dangerous. What makes him different from those characters is that Rilke is perfectly aware of the life he leads. There is no room for self denial in his life.
The sex scenes are graphic, although I don’t think gratuitous, and are self referential as to some they will be seen as pornographic, and questions about society’s relationship to sex, and particularly sexual imagery, are central to the novel. The apparent dichotomy about being attracted to, but disgusted by, the sexual, and the nature of taboo, are important themes which are to the fore in ‘The Cutting Room’. Rilke’s homosexuality is not used as a twist, but it is vital to the novel and allows further comment on the hypocrisy involved in how sex is viewed by the majority of society. Welsh reminds us that one person’s titillation will be another’s filth.
Louise Welsh uses the discovery of pornography at a dead man’s house as the catalyst to the mystery of the novel and this lends it a feel of deceit and deception right from the beginning. The reader is made aware that this novel will expose double lives and dark secrets. In this clip Welsh talks about the real life inspiration for the novel’s plot:
I don’t want to go into the plot here, it is a thriller after all, but I should mention just how well Louise Welsh writes. For a novel that could have been riddled with cliché she manages to appeal to those who understand the noir/gothic genres, while also allowing more literary references. Like Rilke, Welsh feels at home in the darker corners of her fictional world, but there is also the sense that there is much more going on in that world. This sense is confirmed in her second and third novels ‘Tamburlaine Must Die’ and ‘The Bullet Trick’. Make no mistake; this is clever, poetic writing that manages to be tough and lyrical at the same time.
Glasgow is very much part of ‘The Cutting Room’, and Welsh takes us from the leafy West End which most people who know the city will be familiar with, to the darker corners of Glasgow that most would avoid. Welsh has that underrated ability to make her settings so real that the reader can visualise, if not the exact location, then one very like it. Welsh takes us on a tour of the city, naming the streets, parks and buildings as she does so. If you wanted to, and I doubt most people would, you could literally follow in Rilke’s footsteps.
Scotland’s ageing cities are the perfect locations for darker drama, and they have been put to good use in fictions such as Denise Mina’s ‘Garnethill’, Alan Grant’s comic book series ‘The Bogie Man’, David Kane’s Dundonian TV thriller ‘Jute City’, John Byrne’s ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’, Michael Caton Jones’ TV adaptation of Frederick Lindsay’s ‘Brond’ and numerous detective fiction from William McIllvaney’s ‘Laidlaw’ through ‘Rebus’ and even including ‘Taggart’. If James Kelman really believes that genre fiction is taking the food from his mouth then he is fighting a losing battle.
Louise Welsh’s latest novel ‘Naming the Bones’ has just been published and should be in a bookshop near you. Again she writes a male narrative voice with the bookworm Murray Watson the central character. I’m fascinated by writers whose best work comes when writing from a different gender perspective than their own, and in awe of them as when it goes wrong it can do so spectacularly. All of Welsh’s novels feature a male narrator, and every one of them is a convincing character. It’s interesting that Alan Warner, whose best work includes the previously featured ‘Morvern Callar’ as well as ‘These Demented Lands’ and the female ensemble ‘The Sopranos’, is returning to the characters in the latter book for his new novel. But that is for another day.
Next month’s novel: When we first started with this column I got a few suggestions as to future books to discuss. Billy Williamson, of this parish, suggested something by Gordon Legge and I realised I had forgotten about ‘The Shoe’. Legge was one of those writers, along with Duncan McLean, Toni Davidson and Kevin Williamson, who was overshadowed by the success of Welsh, Warner and Banks but he deserves to be read.
‘The Shoe’ is a great place to start, and his portrayal of friendship is warmer and more realistic than other, more celebrated, Scottish novels and the referencing to music is natural rather than forced. I think that everyone will like this novel, but some people will love it as it will remind them of days gone by.
Next 5 books:
1. Gordon Legge The Shoe (Jun)
2. Alan Bissett Boyracers (Jul)
3. Iain Banks The Wasp Factory (Aug)
4. Anne Donovan Buddha Da (Sept)
5. Alasdair Gray Lanark (Oct)