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Two years before he became the first Scottish writer to win the Booker Prize, James Kelman wrote a searing essay, The importance of Glasgow in my work, in which he railed against the lack of real, authentic, Scottish characters and voices in English literature. He saw Scottish characters “confined to the margins” and “imprisoned” within speech and quotation marks, completely otherised when compared to “the proper and pure and pristinely accurate” grammar of the traditional “upper class English hero”. In this essay, Kelmanposed a deceptively simple question: “how do you recognise a Glaswegian in English Literature?” Some 28 years later, the only other Scot to win the same prize has provided us with a novel of rare quality that, in many ways, tries to answer this central question.
The writer, of course, is Douglas Stuart, and the novel in question is his first; Shuggie Bain. Here, we follow the trials of the titular protagonist coming of age in 1980s Glasgow. Industry is collapsing, unemployment and poverty on the rise, and people faced with increasingly grim and difficult choices. Violence – physical, psychological, and sexual – is everywhere, as characters struggle to cope in a system and society that has, in essence, confined them to the margins.
As we delve into the heart of this debut novel, Stuart draws these characters out from the margins and places them centre stage. It makes for a story that we too rarely get to see or hear (many of the issues Kelman identified in 1992 remain true to this day), and it is all the more remarkable, and important, for it.
Told through a mixture of close and distant third-person narration, Stuart vividly depicts a world of high-rise flats and forgotten Council estates. It is a world where people can “rot into the settee for want of decent work” and people are easy prey for addiction.
Our rather precocious Shuggie Bain (junior) sets the narrative ball rolling in this novel. His sexuality and identity hover over the entire plot. Yet while the novel takes its name from him (who in turn gets it from his father) in many ways this story is not really about Shuggie at all. Rather, the real soul of this story belongs to his mother, Agnes, and her desperate descent into alcoholism.
Reading the book from Agnes’s perspective is to understand the role played by the two Shuggie Bains we meet. The father and son [TJ2] are, fittingly, two polar opposites; a ying and yang; the devil and the angel on Agnes’s shoulders. We see these oppositional characteristics reflected in Agnes’ own self (she is prone to destructive behaviour, negligence, and cruelty; but can also be warm, loving, quick-witted, energetic and kind).
There is a kind of inverse Kafkaesque existential anxiety to this novel; a restrained or stunted metamorphosis. For Shuggie Jnr, this often takes the form of the oppression of societal norms that seek to restrict his real identity (mocked as “a wee poofter”, he is constantly advised by others how to walk, and how to talk, as neighbours and family members alike say his queer tendencies ought to be “nipped in the bud”). For Agnes, meanwhile, we, as readers, share a vain hope with young Shuggie that his mother might be able to turn her life around and stay off the booze. Yet, like the metamorphosis of a butterfly, any such change is ultimately revealed to be so fleeting and transient. Indeed, as a teenage Shuggie looks back on his mother’s sole year of sobriety, the weight of his memory, “my mammy had a good year, once, it was lovely,” is earned entirely by the author’s nuanced and thoughtful exploration of addiction – and the relationships it shapes.
“It’s the hope that kills you” is a phrase that seems to cry out from many of Shuggie Bain’s pages; and it is easy to see why the novel has been variously described as a “harsh, bleak, novel”, “rare and gritty” and “brutal and tender”. There is a reason that many reviewers have been drawn to the book’s unflinching portrayal of life below the poverty line. And it is true that T.S. Eliot looms large in the background (particularly as we watch Shuggie and his older brother, Leek, scrambling over the dangerous, dystopian wasteland of an old coal slag heap). There is a delicate balancing act to be done here, and it would be easy for this novel to fall into the clichés of misery memoir or poverty porn. Yet Stuart walks this tightrope well – giving us just enough glimpses of light (and sometimes even laughter) to keep the story moving forwards, even if the characters don’t necessarily have that same luxury.
In many ways, it seems almost churlish to point out that a book about poverty might not leave the narrative smelling of the proverbial roses. And the fixation of many reviewers upon the novel’s bleaker actions/aspects perhaps once again hints at why this book stands out from many others (certainly, from many other Booker Prize winners).
Because what we are really observing, when we look at the ‘bleak’ or ‘harsh’ elements of Shuggie Bain, is reality. The reality of real, authentic, lived experience for millions of people across the UK.
Lacan suggests that what we might think of as “the Real” can never be fully seen. In an age when Governments and their allies in the media try to suppress reality (for us, this might mean catastrophic climate breakdown, or rampant inequality and poverty), this suppression of the Real makes it something of a traumatic void that can only be glimpsed in the fractures and inconsistencies in the field of apparent reality. The reason for this suppression of reality is obvious; as Scottish writer and professor Michael Gardiner suggests, “British social consensus is reliant on the state’s continual cultural effort not to expose its divisions”.
There are, however, scraps of culture that do scrape through the establishment’s filter that signify something that we are all aware of but don’t often talk about or see. And an example of this are these so-called “bleak” aspects of Shuggie Bain.
Because the reality is that these aspects of Shuggie Bain – the mental illness, addiction, the poverty, the squalor of run-down high-rises and forgotten council estates – these things are not mere oddities of the 1980s. The reality is that even before the Coronavirus pandemic hit, poverty was on the rise in the UK (up 50% between 2017-2019), with 14.5 million citizens living “below the breadline” after a decade of failed austerity politics.
In his book The Selfish Capitalist, Oliver James convincingly posits a correlation between rising rates of mental stress and addiction and the neoliberal mode of capitalism practiced in countries like Britain, which inevitably produce the kind of unequal societies where poverty rises, which in turn creates the conditions necessary (existential precariousness; stress, etc) in which addiction flourishes.
It’s also interesting to note the similarities that the character of Agnes shares with the mother of another Glaswegian writer, Darren McGarvey. In his 2018 Orwell prize winning, Poverty Safari, McGarvey shares intimate memories of his mother who at times bares an uncanny resemblance to Agnes; both are addicts, both prone to violence, and both even have a habit of setting things on fire (McGarvey notes, “my mother fancied herself a bit of an arsonist”; while in one particularly traumatic scene, Stuart’s Agnes sets her bedroom on fire – with both herself and her young Shuggie still inside). Any resemblance, of course, is sure to be found in the recollections of the loved ones of so many addicts.
Part of the reason Shuggie Bain feels so authentic and real, then, is because it is. It is that best – and rarest – sort of fiction; which when reading feels as though another soul is somehow connected with yours; holding a mirror to your own memories and lived experiences and validating your own; letting you know that you are not alone.
In some ways, the real fixation, then, should not be on whether or not Shuggie Bain is a “bleak” book. What we should be really asking is why three years after the Grenfell Tower tragedy so devastatingly showed us that inequality and poverty so entrenched here in the UK, the “Stalwarts” of English Literature (as Kelman would call them) haven’t given us more books like Shuggie Bain, which so clearly reflect what we might call ‘the Real’?
These Lacanian fragments of signified reality are also found around the edges of Shuggie Bain itself. Set in the decade that Margaret Thatcher tore the industrial soul out of Britain and confined millions of people to the margins just as she declared there was no such thing as society, it would be easy for Stuart to labour the point explicitly. Instead, there are fleeting references; anti-Thatcher graffiti, the odd throwaway reference to the then-Prime Minister. But in every page we experience the reality of Thatcher’s policies; the “sour” smell of the poverty the characters live; the stressful and long dole queues; the sad sight of groups of unemployed former miners huddled together at an increasingly forlorn old miner’s club; and we see it, too, in the hunger and pain of our main protagonists.
But of course, just because something is real and authentic and political doesn’t mean it is necessarily a masterpiece. What’s the writing like? Does it leap from the pages and burn into your retinas? Does it pain you to close the pages and put the book down?
The short answer is that the writing is engaging, nuanced and thoughtful. It is a book that you’ll think about when you’re not reading it, and long to talk about with friends in non-Zoom book clubs. This is not only thanks to the themes it explores, but also supported by Stuart’s often brilliant descriptions of everyday pieces of existence – staring at an Artex ceiling, “with its icy, stalagmite texture” – that sit alongside the author’s exceptionally keen ear for dialogue.
It’s true that the book could do with a tighter edit. A journey by car to a new house is at least three paragraphs too long, and while the author’s prose can be beautiful and poetic, it sometimes leaves precious little space for the dialogue to breathe.
There are also some unresolved tensions in Shuggie Bain that do require some further investigation. The most notable of these is in the use of language. Just as Adam Smith began attempts to “standardize” and “cultivate” what he saw as “the most imperfect” aspects of English language (i.e. regional dialects and languages like Gaelic), so too does Agnes attempt to standardise her own child’s speech (there is an endearing scene where the boy’s mother tells him off for speaking, essentially, too much like a Glaswegian when he asks if there is “a moose aboot the hoose”). This standardised way of speaking sets Shuggie and his mother apart from many of those around them, and it is interesting that an exchange with one particular Scotsman brings incomprehension from the man – who “cannae hear” Agnes with her “Queen’s best.”
Darren McGarvey has noted how growing up in a so-called deprived community can force you to modify the way you speak and behave, writing in Poverty Safari how “it became very apparent to other people if you started dropping fancy words into conversation.” It’s true that Shuggie’s use of language is another facet of his character that marks him out as being inherently “other” from those around him, while an ‘othering’ of a different sort occurs through Agnes’s own control of language, which helps elevate her to a status somewhat above many of the other stricken characters who she mixes with.
These are interesting ideas to explore, and one does long to hear Kelman’s take on Stuart’s decision to imitate Shuggie’s ‘standard’ English in the wider narrative – once again placing speakers of Scottish dialect back to the confines of quotation marks.
Rather than be consumed by what other reviewers perceive as being bleak or grim, therefore (what would one expect to find in a world of economic and mental depression?), it seems far more pertinent to read Shuggie Bain as an astonishingly real and moving account of human relationships within such an environment. Indeed, there is a huge amount of sympathy in this book, and a fair few happy and stirring moments (one particular scene in which Shuggie, urged on by Agnes, dances like his life depended on it – perhaps because it does – is incredibly powerful and uplifting). That these moments do appear of course serve to make Agnes’s perhaps inevitable and complete fall all the more devastating; but they also carry an important message – that there is no life that is without beauty; no environment in which you cannot find love and power, and unique grace. To focus on elements of the novel you perceive as “grim” or “bleak” is to dismiss all this.
Each of the themes and ideas that spring forth from the novel deserve much more thorough exploration than a 2000 word review will allow. But this isn’t to suggest the book is overly complex or inaccessible; quite the opposite. When it comes down to it, in many ways this book isn’t about addiction, or poverty, or violence, or language, or politics; it’s about love. And what could be more real than that?
How do you recognise a Glaswegian in English Literature? James Kelman asked us in 1992. A good guess would be they’ll probably love their mammy.