James Kelman’s stream of consciousness is expert, but needs more verve and interest – and punctuation – writes Hannah McGill
THIS stream-of-consciousness meander, James Kelman’s first of eight novels to focus upon a female protagonist, takes casino croupier and single mother Helen through a 24-hour period disrupted by glimpses of a spectral figure who may or may not be her long-estranged brother.
Helen’s too repressed to speak to anyone about what’s worrying her, and so she processes it by way of an edgy, fragmented inner prattle that covers her family background and her current situation, her bad marriage and her relationship with a kind man with whom she’s not entirely comfortable – the Mo of the title.
Mo, a laid-back joker to Helen’s self-conscious worrier, might say she’s quirky, but it’s possible that survivors of her whole interior prose-flow of narrative will find themselves wishing she’d been a little more so.
Helen’s observations about the world are, in truth, of the clunkier variety. “If children were cherished there would be far less pain and suffering in the world.” “Everybody has a bad day. They cant always be cheery.” (Helen’s inner voice is sparing with apostrophes.) “Houses creaked because they were old.” “People died in the olden days, if it was appendicitis they died… That was so sad.” We’re told that she has a “weird sense of humour”, that “the most smiling Helen did was to herself” – but this idea of her quirkiness, her unconventionality, sits ill with the extreme banality of her chat, and with a sensitivity so extreme that she’s capable of berating herself for merely thinking of someone as being “lanky”. (“She was not being disloyal saying that if it was the truth and it was the truth.”)
Never mind smiling to herself: Helen seems, for much of the book, to be making incredibly bland smalltalk with herself. On the occasions when the book looks to make us laugh, it tends to be at her, not with her – because she’s capable of outbursts like “Men exaggerated about everything”, or “She didn’t have the looks for prostitution”. At times her naiveté is plain ludicrous, as if Kelman has forgotten he’s writing about a woman and not a child – or can’t conceive of her brand of sweet, woeful kindness unless it comes with a big slab of stupid on the side. “Oh God where did her head go? Where did it not go?” the text wonders. Well, one place for a start: Mo gets undressed and climbs into bed with her at one point. They embrace, and she is surprised and embarrassed – this adult, divorced, cohabiting mother of one – that he has an erection. “His thing my God, already hard, she hadn’t thought.” His thing? Come on! Is anyone that prudish inside their own head? Would Kelman have considered ascribing such improbable delicacy to one of his male protagonists?
When Helen is portrayed as a sexually aware woman with a dense emotional history – rather than a blinking innocent prone to revelations like, “Men were different. People said that and it was true” – the book has far more credibility. Her meditations on one strange past relationship with an older man suggest all sorts of interesting background texture. But this stuff is frustratingly sporadic, and comes padded on all sides by Helen’s emptier burble.
So, Helen’s a bit wearing. The narrative has infinitely more verve and interest when it brushes aside her wispy observations and shows her to us in action. Here, her bumper-sticker brainwaves fall away, and the story grows some ambiguities. Especially powerful is Kelman’s evocation of the strange currents within a nascent step-family: the teary fragility of Helen’s six-year-old daughter Sophie; the tremble of uncertainty around Mo’s trustworthiness; and behind it all, implicitly, those troubling shadows from Helen’s past.
Kelman also has a skill that should and could be considerably more prevalent among novelists: he gives each character a distinct and idiosyncratic voice, rather than a version of his own. (Which helps, in a practical sense, when it comes to the absence of bloody quotation marks. I know I say this in every review I write, and the zeitgeist is evidently against me, but I do wish people would use quotation marks. Punctuation isn’t a tool of capitalist oppression. It’s there to help with meaning and pacing and clarity and important stuff like that. It aids in access to literature. I wish we could have it back.)
Thus Mo, goofy and flirtatious, is instantly distinguishable from the whiny Helen (and a bit of a breath of fresh air when he happens along); and Sophie’s dialogue, though also sparse, is heart-piercingly believable. The structure of the book, also – the cruelly neat circle it completes – is forceful, and the ending draws a gasp.
Perhaps Kelman’s intention is to offer us a sort of treasure hunt: a hidden story that we have to piece together. To some extent this is achieved, but the clues are few and far between, and the distance at which Helen is kept is frustrating and counterproductive.
I can’t help feeling that Kelman’s obsession with making her insistently, thuddingly ordinary – you know, like a real person, not some stuck-up person out of literature – has resulted in a less convincing characterisation, and thus a somewhat blunted book. «
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