That was a Shiver and Other Sto­ries

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - JP O’ MAL­LEY

James Kel­man

Canon­gate, hdbk, 307pages, €16.50

Two years ago, I ran­domly took a stroll across Glas­gow’s city cen­tre, ac­ci­den­tally stum­bling into Kelv­in­grove Art Gallery and Mu­seum, where I be­gan read­ing about the city’s tragic his­tory with awe and fas­ci­na­tion. I dis­cov­ered that from the late 19th cen­tury, right up un­til World War I, Glas­gow pro­duced one-fifth of the world’s ships. Con­se­quently, it be­came known as the sec­ond city of the Bri­tish Em­pire.

With a hard-work­ing im­mi­grant pop­u­la­tion that in­cluded Ir­ish, Jews and Eastern Euro­peans, the city was a hot­bed of cul­ture from var­i­ous per­sua­sions.

How­ever, as the Bri­tish Em­pire rapidly de­clined in the wake of the early 20th cen­tury, so too did Glas­gow.

These days, ev­ery time the city ap­pears in the head­lines, it tends to be for all the wrong rea­sons: mass un­em­ploy­ment, foot­ball hooli­gan­ism, bad health stats, sec­tar­i­an­ism, high mur­der rates, knife crime and so­cial de­pri­va­tion.

Glas­gow, it ap­peared to me from my brief visit there, was a city of con­tra­dic­tions. The peo­ple were charm­ing, open and friendly, and yet the melan­choly was pal­pa­ble.

It’s in this bleak, ur­ban, hu­mor­ous, edgy and para­dox­i­cal world that James Kel­man’s fic­tional char­ac­ters live and breathe, amidst a mael­strom of ex­is­ten­tial anx­i­ety. That was a Shiver and Other Sto­ries is Kel­man’s ninth book of sto­ries to date.

The 71-year-old Glaswe­gian has also pub­lished nine nov­els, a num­ber of dra­mas, and a col­lec­tion of crit­i­cal es­says, too. In 1994, he won the Booker Prize for his novel How Late it Was, How Late. A storm of controversy en­sued. Up­pity An­glo-Saxon con­ser­va­tive crit­ics claimed Kel­man’s con­tin­ual use of the f *** word was gra­tu­itous and cul­tur­ally un­couth.

It’s most likely these cul­tural snobs didn’t get Kel­man’s work for two rea­sons. Firstly, be­cause the Bri­tish don’t have a rich tra­di­tion in mod­ernist lit­er­a­ture. Kel­man’s in­flu­ences are strictly Euro­pean: Joyce, Kafka, Ham­sun, Sartre and Beck­ett. And, se­condly, be­cause Kel­man’s prose rat­tles the English lit­er­ary main­stream, which is ob­sessed with class, good man­ners, con­ven­tion­al­ity, or­dered lan­guage, and with fixed bound­aries.

What I found par­tic­u­larly ap­peal­ing about this col­lec­tion is the en­ergy and dy­namism of Kel­man’s writ­ing. Ev­ery­thing is stripped down to its barest form. His mu­si­cal play­ful­ness with curse words is in­trigu­ing, al­most an art form in it­self.

The 25 sto­ries vary in length — some are just a page or two. These lit­tle nuggets are more like philo­soph­i­cal es­says about what it means to be alive. Or, seen from another an­gle, what it means to be on a slow road to death.

One cer­tainly has to be in the mood for some of these bleaker ex­is­ten­tial tales. In ‘This Has No Ti­tle’ persons are de­scribed as “ves­sels, hav­ing emp­tied, [be­com­ing] washed-up.” Kel­man could have just used the word peo­ple here, but he chooses his words care­fully, to keep his bleak style con­sis­tent at all times.

The char­ac­ters we meet in this col­lec­tion are usu­ally male, mid­dle-aged, and an­gry at so­ci­ety, and the shitty set of cir­cum­stances life has be­queathed them. Kel­man’s scenes are framed in pubs, book­ies, sit­ting rooms, or on pub­lic trans­port. And he tends to find beauty, hu­mour, phi­los­o­phy, and dra­matic ten­sion in the quo­tid­ian and the ba­nal.

Noth­ing much hap­pens to most of Kel­man’s char­ac­ters. But that in it­self becomes his point of in­ter­est. Most of what we are read­ing here is the in­ner thoughts of the pro­tag­o­nists them­selves, rather than any ac­tual move­ment or ac­tion of char­ac­ter. Usu­ally these dark thoughts veer to­wards ni­hilis­tic de­spair. But it’s not all Ni­et­zschean-like doom and gloom.

Kel­man’s vi­sion of the world is bleak — but redemp­tion is forth­com­ing. Mostly, this comes from women: who tend to be the stronger char­ac­ters we meet across these pages.

In tales like ‘Oh the Days Ahead’ and ‘One has One’s Weans’, Kel­man cre­ates bril­liant sub­tle ten­sion be­tween his male and fe­male char­ac­ters, who al­ways ap­pear to be mis­read­ing what the other is say­ing in Pin­teresque-like lit­tle snip­pets of di­a­logue. These women pro­vide much needed bits of hu­mour to lift their male coun­ter­parts out of their ex­is­ten­tial dark holes.

It’s the col­lec­tion’s fi­nal, epony­mous story, how­ever, that is the book’s real mas­ter­piece. We meet Robert, a mid­dle-aged man walk­ing around the Glas­gow Bar­ras mar­kets, shop­ping for old LPs.

The nar­ra­tive’s bril­liant dra­matic ten­sion ar­rives when, in a fu­ri­ous para­noid an­gry out­burst, Robert ac­cuses the seller on the record stall of try­ing to phys­i­cally threaten him.

Kel­man then sub­tly uses this episode as a gate­way to look into the man’s wider philo­soph­i­cal out­look on life, and then peer deeply into his fam­ily his­tory, too.

Un­com­pro­mis­ing in vi­sion, and yet strangely adapt­able in style and con­tent, Kel­man’s harsh tales of dirty re­al­ism have sym­pa­thy for how suf­fer­ing is a cen­tral com­po­nent of the hu­man con­di­tion.

This col­lec­tion shows a writer who is still at the top of his game, brim­ming with cre­ativ­ity, vi­tal­ity, and artis­tic in­tegrity.

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