Other Press has made it a mission to publish compelling fiction and nonfiction that represents unique voices from around the world. It’s a mission we share here at Midnight Breakfast, and so when we launched Small Plates I knew I’d soon be knocking on their door.
I’d never read James Kelman before I picked up Other Press’s American edition of his recent short story collection, If it is your life, but I knew him by his reputation as one of Scotland’s eminent and most idiosyncratic writers. He’s won numerous awards, including the Booker Prize for his 1994 novel, How Late It Was, How Late, the awarding of which caused a good deal of controversy and got Kelman labeled an “illiterate savage” by his critics. Apparently, some of the British literary elite took offense to the vulgarity of Kelman’s roughshod stream-of-consciousness narrative voice, which he uses to capture the perspective of the Scottish working class, for whom he’s also an outspoken activist. In other words: He’s a man after my own heart.
I won’t pretend that If it is your life isn’t often a challenging book. Kelman’s rambling Glaswegian internal monologues can sometimes be a bit hard to follow, but the experience of immersing oneself so wholly in the thoughts of Kelman’s downtrodden Scotsmen is often sublime. The book is also hilarious. Kelman wields irony sometimes like a scalpel and other times like a hammer. His narrators are so unreliable that they go back around the bend and become reliable again, their circuitous trains of thought revealing truths about themselves and the human experience that they may not even be aware of. Take, for example, the excerpt below, from the titular story in the collection, in which the narrator, a good old blue-collar boy from Glasgow, reflects on his new experiences at the English university where he’s gone to study philosophy and fallen in with an upper-crust girl who may just be sleeping with him because he’s from the wrong side of the tracks.
— F. Taylor Pavlik, Associate Editor
Celia did fancy stuff sometimes, not often, hardly at all. She went for hours without eating; if I had waited for her I would have starved to death. Anything I made she ate; cheese on toast, anything, scrambled eggs and beans, pilchards or sardines, fried onions and veggie sausages, rolls and potato crisps: anything at all, I had to do it because she would not, a sausage sandwich even. So much so you wondered if she was actually lazy. Why did she not cook? Yet she ate anything! She gave you the idea she was fussy but she was not. She had a big appetite but pretended not to have. She did not have to pretend. I did not care. Even I liked her appetite. Only I did not notice it at first. If I bought food when we were out she just laughed but she ate it and if it was fish and chips walking home from the movies, she loved it. Just the whole thing. But I loved it more because it was sexy. I thought it was. Sex and food. People say that and you get movies about it; I saw a great Japanese one with Celia. Another one too and it was erotic, I did not think it would be, I did not think of Japanese people having erotic movies. I thought it was the ‘degenerate West’. I was not a movie buff but she was. But it was good being with her there and usually it was quiet when we went. She liked me stroking her. One time after it we returned to her place and people were there and all talking together. They all seemed to know each other except me but it was like they knew who I was. But they did not talk to me and I thought they excluded me. And Celia said something and it was like she excluded me too. Maybe I misheard. I do not even know what it was and have forgotten about it almost completely, it was just a wee comment, just something whatever it was and it was to do with ‘people from the north’. Yet when she made it her hand was on my wrist and was stroking. That was a funny thing to do. How could she do that at the same time? What did that make me to her? I was just like a body. That was the dichotomy. You got it in philosophy about mind and body but this was out the sociology books where people were treated as bodies without a mind. She was taking me to her room anyway and we were trying to escape, that was what I thought. I did not know why we waited in that company or why we joined it in the first place. She must have liked them. That was her. It was up to her, it was her place and her friends. I was a stranger. I was a foreigner, a visitor from another planet, an alien, maybe I was invisible. Sometimes I was but not to her, and it was to her, I did not care about them, saying that or whatever they did, it was her, her doing it and at the same time stroking my wrist, she was, just stroking me, and it was just jeesoh if she wanted sex, the way she was stroking, people would have seen her, the way she was doing it to me. It was following from me, how I had stroked her, that was why she was doing it, she loved me stroking her and there in the cinema lying into me, she loved me doing it and just it was like hypnotizing and if she did it to me jeesoh it was just so – really it was amazing. There was not anything to say it was sex, really and what was there to say I just felt sometimes I was lost. I did not expect any woman to enjoy sex, not like the way a man does, it was a way the woman had of getting the man. If she set her sights on somebody that was how she done it, she used her body. We got seats away from people and did it to each other.
But she really did enjoy it. She said she really did, she laughed at me.
Maybe it was an acting thing. People say what they think. You just do not get liars, not like in the everyday world: that was what she said. I did not believe her. Actors were people and people were people, either they were liars, or they were not liars; and some were both. That applied to most people. Everybody, sometimes they lie and sometimes they tell the truth.