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Having met Alasdair Gray, I now find it impossible to read any of his work without hearing it in that soft, hiccuppy, Scottish purr of his. Somehow the new stories gathered here in The Ends of Our Tethers: 13 Sorry Stories (Canongate, 2003) make more sense when heard that way.

Though the title is a misnomer. There are thirteen pieces alright, but ’15 February 2003′ is fairly straight reportage of when he went on the anti-war march in Glasgow on that day, ‘Moral Philosophy Exam’ is what newspapers call, I believe, a ‘think piece’ designed to raise moral issues but without actual plot and drama, and there are a couple of other very short vignettes that ahrdly amount to what we would ordinarily call a ‘story’.

Nevertheless, the fiction that is gathered here is, for anyone remotely familiar with Gray’s work, absolutely archetypal. It is written in a very plain prose, it is stuffed full of left-wing political commitment (to the extent that anyone right of centre is likely to dismiss it as radical polemic rather than fiction), and it has what we might term a robust attitude towards sex and male failings. Four pieces stand out particularly, curiously enough the four longest pieces.

‘No Bluebeard’ is the story of a man who finds himself looking after and eventually marrying a woman with what appears to be Tourette’s Syndrome, and through coming to terms with her edgy disturbance he finds himself looking back at his three previous failed marriages and recognising what it was in him that made them fail (and why his new marriage still feels exploitative).

‘Job’s Skin Game’ is an updating of the Biblical story of Job telling of a man who builds up a building company into a major international business then sees it collapse through no fault of his own, and who then develops an extreme form of exzema. In the notes, Gray remarks that the story came to him when he developed exzema after a break of some 40 years, which makes me think that the dragon skin in Lanark was also a reference to his exzema.

‘Miss Kincaid’s Autumn’ (no relation, I assure you) tells of a woman from a repressive family in a repressed Scottish town who finds a little freedom in the autumn of her life through incest.

‘Aiblins’ is the story of a creative writing teacher whose own career as a writer is shadowed by the regular reappearances of a manic but possibly brilliant poet.

And, of course, as with any Alasdair Gray book, you have to remove the dust-jacket and enjoy the glorious design of the cover. The quote inscribed on this one is from Seamus Heaney: ‘Remember everything and keep your head’.

Like everything by Gray, this is a disturbing book, but a pleasure none the less.

First published at Livejournal, 25 February 2004.

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