Paul Bryant's Reviews > Poor Things

Poor Things by Alasdair Gray
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Jul 14, 12

bookshelves: modernvictorian, novels
Read in July, 2012

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.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by MJ (new) - rated it 5 stars

MJ Nicholls At last! The man reads something of quality. *ducks to avoid quickly thrown tome on pop music or laissez-faire capitalism*

Paul Bryant yes, it is about time!

Paul Bryant you missed out the true crime gorefests - I could sling a few of those too...

message 4: by Mala (last edited Jul 18, 2012 02:52AM) (new)

Mala I haven't read this book so no ideas abt it but i enjoyed reading abt your family's theatrical outing,cos as a parent,I could completely relate to that.
Good wishes to the "pretty Georgia",hope she doesn't roll her eyes to that!

On a totally different note,i watched 'Bad Boy Bubby' (highly recommended by you on the Kim Newman book review thread). But why did you give it top 2 spot in your best horror films list? It's a very dark comedy,sort of perverted Forrest Gump,with some very disturbing content. A horror film it's not,though surely Bubby's life is horrific,but then how can you know that you are living in darkness when you've never seen the light?
My husband,who is a cat lover,was understandably traumatised by this movie experience,suffice it to say,we'll never look at clingfilm the same way again!
The clingwrap sequence & the rock star performances were just superb! The actor playing Bubby nailed the part.

Paul Bryant very glad you enjoyed this movie, I wouldn't recommend it to everyone.... I agree it is not strictly a horror movie, but includes so many horrific scenes that I think you have to class it as a horror-comedy. But that diminishes it. I saw a Japanese movie just this week which was in the same ballpark as Bubby, called Visitor Q, but it didn't have the charm or the humanity.

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