Almost the only thing that dragged me away from this rollicking novel was a school production of Oliver in which my daughter Georgia (soon to be 16, can that possibly be?) was cavorting and twirling as part of the chorus line (oom-papah, oom-papah, that's how it goes!) , and then warbling a solo Where Is Love as Mrs Bedwin The Housekeeper over Oliver's sleeping form – she looked so pretty with her hair piled up on her head, something she never does in real life. There was a schoolgirl usher who sat next to us on the front row, and before the performance started, she got chatting. We asked her if she had wanted to be in Oliver, and she said she had been, but had to drop out, because her dad just died. What?? You can imagine our interested smiles freezing and dropping to the floor in splinters. Oh yes, it was just a couple of weeks ago, and her mum is still in the hospital very ill from the same thing as killed her dad. What???? We really didn't know what to say, and she seemed so matter-of-fact about this ghastly tragedy. At that uneasy moment, the orphans arrived and started lining up for their gruel.
After the whole thing was done and we had gone through every single part of the evening and told Georgia precisely who was good or bad, what we thought of the sound effects for Nancy's murder and the cut of Mr Bumble's jib, we mentioned this awful story. Oh that was Grace, she said, rolling her eyes. She was going to be Mrs Bumble but she was kicked out for not turning up to rehearsals. No, her dad hadn't died and her mother wasn't in any hospital with a life-threatening ailment. I think I would have heard about that! Grace is a compulsive liar. Everyone knows that!
And so is Alasdair Gray. Poor Things is a Victorian narrative by a "Scottish public Health Officer" named Archibald McCandless which is immediately contradicted completely by a letter/essay written by the principal of the narrative, his wife Bella Baxter aka Victoria McCandless, which is in turn cross-examined and undermined to an extent by a series of contemporary notes appended by "Alisdair Gray". Some novels given to japery-wheezy faux-academic pastiche do this – check out House of Leaves for a rock and roll example, or Pale Fire by Nabokov, probably the grandaddy of the genre.
It's great fun – how could it not be when you get, for instance, the great Glaswegian seducer Duncan Wedderburn justifying himself in terms such as these:
No delicious scullions, tempting laundry manglers, lucious latrine scrubbers ever lost a day's work by dallying with Duncan Wedderburn, though the shortness and irregularity of their free time meant I had to court several at once.
Or again, savour the Dickensian turn of phrase of Bella, our heroine, talking about a trip to Argentine to try to discover some of her own mysterious history:
In Buenos Aires we tried to visit my parents' grave, but Baxter found the railway company that paid for the interment had put them in a graveyard on the edge of a bottomless canyon, so when Chimborazo or Cotopaxi or Popocatapetl erupted the whole shebang collapsed in an avalance to the bottom crushing headstones coffins skeletons to a powder of in-fin-it-se-im-al atoms. Seeing them in that state would have been like visiting a heap of caster sugar.
I've now read four Alasdair Gray books, all completely different from each other, except as regards to their linguistic effervescence. Lanark is the big masterpiece. But if you fancy a bit of Victoriana with a dash of Breughel, a spoonful of Engels and a garnishing of Mary Shelley, Poor Things will do for you as it did for me.