Book review: If It Is Your Life, James Kelman


James Kelman

Hamish Hamilton, 18.99

IT WOULD be easy to quote selectively from James Kelman's new short story collection, If It Is Your Life – his first since The Good Times in 1998 – and make it appear to conform to the worst stereotypes he has had to endure across a career fissured between official recognition (as the only Scottish winner of the Booker Prize for How Late It Was, How Late) and disdain (columnist Simon Jenkins claimed the book "contrived to insult literature and patronise the savage").

Early in the last story we get the line "F***ing officialdom man I hate it, I detest it with a vehemence, total vehemence". Out of context it can be made to seem like off-the-peg radicalism. What that misses is Kelman's nimble play of registers, switching between the arch and the demotic, parodic and polemic. The self-same story has lines such as "What is that exchelsis stuff and does that only apply to celestial creatures"; the coinage "limbolular"; disquisitions both erotic and philosophical; and an anecdote about an "old guy" who "regarded 'recycled tea-bags' as a close relative of fruit and vegetables".

It is telling that a major concern in many of these stories is language, particularly in relation to the body. In the excellent title story, a student on a bus home from England to Glasgow realises "ears are outside but your hearing is inside". A self-conscious man meeting his ex-lover wonders "lovers entwine arms. Had she ever entwined mine? Or what about me? Had I ever done it to her, entwined?"

In the opening story, a piece of black comedy comparable in tone to the Beckett of Stories And Texts For Nothing, the narrator has had his leg amputated, and, while struggling to put on the trousers given to him by the Social Security Office, has the revelation that he now has a "good leg, of course it was the only one".

An underrated feature of Kelman's work has been his capacity for depicting tenderness. It is most evident in the long story Talking About My Wife, but there are flashes of a clear-eyed and unsentimental ache for love in stories as different as The Gate, where a man muses about his grandson "I was not his favourite but he was mine", and the tour-de-force As If From Nowhere. The bed-bound narrator suffering, he assumes, from cancer looks at his hands and marvels "how in the name of that which aspires to holiness do children consent to hold such a hand! Even more astonishing, that a woman should allow such a hand to touch her skin".

The relationship between men and women is often used to interrogate a key Kelman theme; the inability to ever truly leave one's own head. In the poetic Death Is Not, the position is summarised: "What went on inside her head? Frequently I thought I knew but I didn't at all. Even to think I knew was arrogance of the intellectual order". The sardonic narrator of A Sour Mystery is struck by the thought "Do people have outer psyches?" What makes Kelman's moments of empathy so precious and precise is that they take place against a backdrop of philosophically coherent solipsism.

There are, of course, pyrotechnic blasts of ire against "grovellation" and astute shards about the difference between politics and parliaments. There is also the wry, dry comedy that always marbled his work. But it would be as wrong as perpetuating the stereotype of Kelman not to acknowledge his profound, and bleak, seriousness. As the narrator of As If From Nowhere says, "Few, very few; few, fewer, fewest, in completion of the sentence, which is life itself, life itself is the sentence".

&#149 This Article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, March 28, 2010