I first started reading James Kelman back in 1994 when his novel How Late It Was, How Late had just won the Man Booker Award. The novel was entrancing. Driven by a rough Glaswegian dialect that was musical, whimsical and earthy, the novel followed the Kafkaesque troubles of an ex-con who has been beaten, blinded and abandoned. I remember the plot only faintly, but the language itself will stay with me forever. It was as if Samuel Beckett had plopped down into Glasgow, went on a long bender, and lived to tell the tale.
After that introduction, I read his short story collection, Busted Scotch. Again, while I enjoyed the stories, it was the language that remained. Lively, working-class language, filled with imaginative slang and time-born wisdom.
I remember being excited when I learned of his next novel, You Have to Be Careful In the Land of the Free when it came out in 2005. How wonderful, I thought, to hear that raspy, magical, glittering voice unleashed in the vastness of the Americas. But I was greatly disappointed. Storyline was never his strong point, but here even the voice had faded. I was off Kelman for a while.
And I guess to my detriment, because Kelman’s next work was widely praised. Kieron Smith, Boy was a story of an urban and lonely childhood and it was called both “magnificent and important.” But I missed it and now it’s at the bottom of a long list of must reads.
But I did pick up Kelman’s latest novel, Mo Said She Was Quirky–mainly because of the intriguing title. And once again, the language is at the forefront. Once again we are in a Beckettian world of isolation and words. Yet, unlike anything he did before, in Mo Said She Was Quirky, Kelman’s lyrical speaker is a woman, Helen. The novel is told primarily in the first person, much an extended interior monologue. Other characters appear, but we see and hear them only through Helen’s eyes.
Helen works the night shift at a London casino, where she and her daughter have moved to get away from her no-account husband in Glasgow and where they now share a small, one-bedroom flat with her Pakistani lover, Mo.
In a cab on the way home one night, Helen stares at two homeless men stagger across the intersection in front of the taxi. One of the me stares intently into the cab and Helen recognizes him as her brother. This recognition begins her long night of self-examination, self-incrimination, and self-rationalization. Why is she here? Why is he there? How dysfunctional was her and her brother’s growing up or is this the state of all humanity? Helen is generous in her compassion and stingy with her self-pity. Many have it worse than she, she deliberates, and then realizes that misery, sorrow, and pain are very relative and the fact that she has a hot shower and another person does not does not make her pain any easier or lighter to bear.
Completely knackered and unused to the night-shift, Helen, nevertheless, cannot sleep. Her mind races with memories of her brother, her damaged parents, her child, her ex, and the kind man she lives with, Mo. She waits until Mo and her daughter waken, watches them go off to school, and yet, still, she cannot sleep. She thinks greatly about the differences between men and women, the posturing and bullying of those she has known, the favorites that her parents very obviously played. She thinks about racism and worries about Mo. She thinks of the urban jungle and worries about her daughter.
As night turns into day, as Mo takes her child to work, she grabs a few hours of rest but her mind is increasingly racing. And as it does we learn more why this simple-hearted woman is so fraught with worry about the future, so done-in by her present, and so haunted by her past.
I give Kelman a lot of credit for trying what he does so well in a woman’s voice. At times, Helen’s monologue seems to drag but at others it is riveting, revealling bits and bits of a single life and illuminating the mind of a woman who lives in constant worry about the world around her–and the past that formed her.
I’m not really sure yet how I feel about Mo Said She Was Quirky. I do know that Kelman’s voice in it has me returning to reread How Late It Was, How Late. That’s the novel of his that I loved the most, and the others have yet to measure up.