Stories from the viewpoint of the trampled

January 23, 2011

If it is Your Life
By James Kelman, Penguin Books 2010
280 pages, hardback

This is Scottish author James Kelman’s first collection of short stories since The Good Times in 1998.

Right from the very first sentence you know you are back in the distinctive world of Kelman’s fiction: “When I presented myself at the Emergency section of the Social Security Office I knew things could go wrong but I was not expecting a leg amputated.”

White working-class Scottish men were not entirely absent from Scottish literature prior to Kelman’s earliest publications in the 1970s. But no one had come anywhere near to representing them as having complex and rich interior lives.

Paraphrasing from one of the titles in this collection, they were almost viewed as pieces of shit without the power to speak — or without the power to speak “properly”. Kelman’s genius lies in part in his capacity to shatter that conception of “proper” speech.

I can remember being told off at junior school for speaking of the polis (rather than “the police”) and as an undergraduate envying students at university who, unlike me, were able to discuss philosophy in their everyday voice.

For me, masterpieces such as Kelman’s 1983 novel The Busconductor Hines and his 1983 collection of short stories Not Not While the Giro were a revelation and a liberation. Here was great literature written in the language that I speak and in which I think.

In this latest volume, Kelman probes even further into the psyche of the working-class male. But although written invariably in the first person, with the main character a working-class male, there is nothing approaching machismo in these stories.

In fact, in pieces such as “Talking about my wife” (which details a conversation between a man and his wife after he has lost his job), “A sour mystery” (in which a man and his ex meet up for an awkward drink), and “If this is your life” (in which a working-class philosophy student on the bus home to Glasgow ponders on his relationship with a middle-class girl at university in England), Kelman explores male-female relationships with a tenderness, delicacy and emotional astuteness that leaves most “mainstream” writers in the shade.

Kelman fuses these intense and detailed portrayals with his characteristic political radicalism.

In the final story, “I am as putty”, a man on his way to a meeting with an official at a government employment agency muses: “Fucking officialdom man I hate it, I detest it with a vehemence, total vehemence.”

He fantasises about sparking up a relationship with the “well-spoken” woman conducting the interview, but he describes her as having “that English accent that once heralded doom for the rest of the world”.

He laments that “since the dawn of the Holy Empire”, people such as he have been stifled by that “deadening blanket of wrong reasoning, governed governed and governed again”.

But there is no romanticising of his own class. Encountering an unhelpful bus driver, the central character of “I am as putty” reflects: “One presumes that characters such as he hold revolutionary-grounded politics similar to one’s own. Whenever I board their bus I give a conspiratorial twitch of the head.

“But it never works man it just never fucking works. An authoritarian right-wing arsehole; that is what he was, somebody who would rather lick the boots of the bosses than join a comrade in acts of liberation.”

Overall, this collection represents another ingenious and sometimes deeply funny fusion of the personal and the political, from the viewpoint of working-class people trampled upon in “a society structured on sinecurial wealth and the veracity of inherited inequality”.

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