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How Every Empire Falls

Lanark: A Life in Four Books

By Alasdair Gray 

5 Nov, 2019

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Alasdair Gray’s 1981 debut novel Lanark: A Life in Four Books is a standalone dystopian surrealist work. Or to look at it another way, it’s one part straightforward literary fiction and one part portal fantasy (of sorts).

Lanark is an unsocial man living in the troubled city of Unthank. Duncan Thaw is a socially deficient inhabitant of Glasgow. The two men are connected in ways of which neither is immediately aware. And why would they be aware? They inhabit different realities.

Gray does something interesting with the structure…

Lanark has no memory of his past life and little notion of possible futures. For the moment he spends his time in the grotty Elite Café, keeping an eye out for occasional moments of direct sunlight. This habit draws the attention of the bohemian Sludden set, who adopt the prickly man into their numbers.

For many, companionship brings happiness. Lanark, however, has all the social graces of a feral cat and even less ability to enjoy himself. He does, however, have a remarkable talent for making himself and all around him unhappy. 

Which is not difficult. Unthank and its world are unpleasant. Sunlight is uncommon (in some regions unknown). Its people are plagued by bizarre diseases. Daily life is interrupted by inexplicable happenings. Governments seem incapable of any constructive action. 

Lanark is himself a victim of Unthank’s dystopia. He is nudged into an unwanted role at a mysterious Institute. He is, as always, unhappy. Even more unhappy and anxious, as he is learning even more about just how gefucktet everything is. 


Duncan Thaw combines precocity with obstreperous tendencies. He’s a challenge his Glaswegan parents did not want or need. Nevertheless they do their best to help Thaw find a niche where he can be work and be happy. Thaw believes that his niche is art. Alas, post-war Glasgow isn’t exactly keen on subsidizing unworldly artists. Thaw resigns himself to a spartan lifestyle. Result: a long miserable life whose miseries are to a large extent self-inflicted. 


Lanark undertakes a long and difficult journey to a grand conclave of world leaders who may be able to intervene on Unthank’s behalf. This quest brings him face to face with the entity who shaped Unthank’s world, the very person who should be able save Unthank. But can he realistically expect anything other than disappointment? 


That cover is pretty freaking hideous. 

This book was well outside my comfort zone. At least now I can say that I’ve read a Scottish literary work that reminds me in an odd way of a more ambitious, skilful, successful take on a Robert Sheckley novel ( Options).

Gray, the author of Lanark, acknowledges his rather important role in the novel by writing himself into it as its demiurge. Many authors might present themselves as godlike figures; Gray offers a version of himself that is not entirely flattering. His imagined self is the sort of writer who might opt for a tediously cliched climax lifted from legions of speculative fiction stories while angrily denying that his work is science fiction: 

He began speaking in a shrill whisper which swelled to a bellow: I am not writing science fiction! Science-fiction stories have no real people in them, and all my characters are real, real, real people! I may astound my public by a dazzling deployment of dramatic metaphors designed to compress and accelerate the action, but that is not science, it is magic! Magic! As for my ending’s being banal, wait till you’re inside it.” 

The narrative makes it pretty clear that Gray is familiar with post-war SF. One suspects the reader is not intended to accept the demiurge’s pretensions as legitimate. 

The author’s notes indicate that Thaw (the character) is based to a large degree on himself. Having sat through some dreadful plays I can tell you that self-insertion can result in pretentious tedium. Not in this case, because Gray is not some fawning fan of Alasdair Gray or even of fictionalized versions of Gray. The narrative makes it clear that Thaw is responsible for most of his own misery. Not at all a Gary Stu.

That said, neither Thaw nor Lanark occupy worlds likely to encourage personal happiness. They may be the stars of their personal narratives. They are insignificant fly specks as far as their respective societies are concerned. Their worlds are highly entropic: oases of prosperity are created only by expanding deserts elsewhere. In the long run, nothing will end well. But it will all end 1 so at least there’s that.

… which is to present the narrative out of any immediately comprehensible order 2, although once one has finished reading, the novel and the links between the parts do make sense. As well, Gray takes a rather unconventional view regarding punctuation (which caused some issues with copy editors) and the placement of epilogues. This could be vexing to that sort of reviewer who insists on everything being arranged just so, in proper order. In this case, it wasn’t.

This could be one long miserable account of how life is terrible and how most people deserve their fates. Gray has a playful sense of humour about it all. Reality might be inherently bleak but at least we can enjoy its absurdity while the timer runs down. 

Lanark: A Life in Four Books is available here (Amazon) here (Amazon.ca), here (Amazon.co.uk), and here (Chapters-Indigo).

1: The novel does offer this moment of hope:

Well, it isn’t definitely proved yet, but I like it better than the other theory. It’s more optimistic.”


Well, if the first theory is true then one day the stars will burn out and the universe will be nothing but empty space and cold black lumps of rock. But if Professor Hoyle is right there will always be new stars to replace the dead ones.”

The minister said politely, I am fortunate to be rescued from a dying universe at the moment of finding myself menaced by it.”

Alas, Professor Hoyle was incorrect.

2: Which forces the reader to assemble the events in their proper order, which can only be done once the novel has been read at least once.