Two original and accomplished works by Alasdair Gray, self-styled 'Caledonian promover of intelligible sapience', are published this month. Unlikely Stories, Mostly is copiously illustrated in a style which sometimes descends to coy greeting-card formalism - inanely grinning dogs, twinkling stars, nymphs with perfectly rounded breasts and perfectly circular nipples, muscular workers, a conquistador complete with Spanish moustache, an eastern scene composed of pointy pagodas. Prospective readers should not be daunted; Gray's prose is seldom crass. Some of Gray's experiments are daring gambles: in one story he choreographs four parallel texts on the page (edited from the lucubrations of the great and good Sir Thomas Urquhart, a fellow Scottish patriot and eccentric genius), prints the vowels and consonants of a passage on separate pages, and interrupts the text with blank sections (where the manuscript was supposedly nibbled by mice). Not all of Gray's literary adventures are as successful as these; indeed, the editorial rodents should not have released this book from their clutches until it was seventy pages shorter. The first seven stories are pleasant and amusing enough, and are doubtless included to indicate the range of Gray's imaginative talent. However, compared to the five central interlinked stories which take up the bulk and constitute the real achievement of this work, these minor excursions are negligible. The last two texts in particular, labelled as 'likely stories' and each five lines long, posit a tawdry domestic realism (within symmetrical pre and post-marital situations) as a bathetic contrast to the 'unlikely' fictions of the rest of the book. The gnomic closure of these scraps is pretentious, and their cynicism is trivial.
LRB 3 May 1984 | PDF Download