Book review: That Was a Shiver and Other Stories, by James Kelman

In his thought-provoking short story collection James Kelman demonstrates why he is one of the few authors who really matter

James Kelman is a demanding writer. Picture: Greg Macvean
James Kelman is a demanding writer. Picture: Greg Macvean

There was a taxi-driver who said, “I had Bertrand Russell , the philosopher you know, in the back of my cab. So I said to him, ‘what’s it all about then, Bertie?’ And do you know? He couldn’t tell me.” The story may be fictitious, no matter. Russell would have been right to keep silent. There is no answer, only thoughts which provoke more questions.

In the early years of his career, James Kelman was regarded as a “slice of life” writer, a gritty realist exploring and depicting the gritty underside of modern life. The perception wasn’t entirely wrong – Kelman has always done that. But it was inadequate. He has always been primarily interested in philosophical questions, in the nature of reality and how we understand and interpret experience, in “what it’s all about?” Some may be surprised to find how often the question of God makes its way into his characters’ minds. Adept though he is at evoking the physical – the feel of a hand on a woman’s shoulder, for instance – he is concerned with moral choice, with what is ethical, with what is permissible – what next move may the hand properly make? If one of his characters is in a bar waiting for a woman who is late and may not arrive, he notices what is around him, remarks and speculates on the other people there, but what goes on in his head is more important.

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This makes Kelman a demanding writer. In reading his stories there is no urgency to learn what happens next. It’s quite likely that nothing much will happen, nothing out of the ordinary. But you read him carefully, with attention. Indeed, I reckon a good reader of Kelman sounds the words in his own head. You can’t skim his prose as you may skim the pages of a newspaper; it would be futile to do so, also insulting.

Embarrassment is one of Kelman’s subjects. In “What did the Pixie Say”, a young man, Callum, makes an emergency delivery of printing materials to Gerry, a designer with whom he is on friendly terms. Ivan, the arrogant owner of the flat where Gerry is working, is first rude to Callum and then needles him and then calls him “Goody-Two-Shoes” and a “Highland waif”, addressing him also by a woman’s name. Callum doesn’t know how to handle it. He would like the hit him, but instead finds himself blushing bright red. He thinks “it was like the worst that can happen”. Embarrassment is rarely far from guilt, and guilt afflicts many in Kelman’s world.

He is also a comic writer, of the kind that makes you smile rather than laugh.There’s a lovely story – this one is indeed a slice or snatch of life – about a shopping trip to The “Barrows” market where Robert, an elderly man, after ruminating of where he might like his ashes to be scattered, has an argument with the girl at a stall selling old records because the sleeve promises country and western music but the record is of Mario Lanza singing opera. Mario Lanza – that dates him nicely; he thinks his Granny would have liked it. But the “girny girl”, having looked at the album sleeve “as if she had never seen anything like it I her life before” takes an uninterested “who cares?” attitude. “She didnay care. She just stared at him. Imagine. Tracy would have slapped her face. She didnay even listen. You tellt her stuff and she didnay even listen. Opera was history.”

Some of the stories, many very short, are internal meditations, even essays, rather than narratives, but then one has rarely read Kelman for the story (though his last novel, Dirt Road, about a recently bereaved father and son’s journey through the southern states of the USA, was actually full of good stories.) Some of them are bleak, but not all; there are some moments of joy. One story even ends with the narrator “smiling a true and honest smile”. The adjectives are just right. Kelman has always been a true and honest writer, which is why he is one of the fairly few who really matter.

That Was a Shiver and Other Stories is published by Canongate, £14.99

James Kelman is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 18 August