By Gerry Hassan
Three new books by James Kelman have just been published by PM Press of California. This must be an exciting time for both Kelman fans and for Kelman Studies. One new novel, one collection of essays, and and a philosophical debate between Kelman and Noam Chomsky -it’s a lot to chew on. So The Drouth is delighted to be producing the first reviews of these new works. The second up in our Kelman series is a review of his new novel by writer Gerry Hassan.
THE LONLINESS OF THE LONG DISTANT WRITER IN THE AGE OF CONSTANT SELF-PROMOTION
God’s Teeth and Other Phenomena by James Kelman, PM Press.
Every year 180, 000 books are published in the UK. As Stephen Lotinga, Chief Executive of the Publisher’s Association, commented in November 2020, during lockdown readers have returned to fiction for ‘entertainment, escapism and comfort’. And those who read James Kelman’s extraordinary new novel (the title of which evokes an Elizabethan blasphemy that punctuates the text) will find all of these – and much, much more – within.
In this audacious work Kelman documents the travails of his protagonist Jack Proctor, a 66 year-old writer and man of letters, through the world of literary festivals, writers’ workshops and publisher events, where the anxiety and frustration of dealing with incompetent arts administrators (often less than half his age) is only a badly titled email away.
This tour de force works as both a roman a clef, a writing primer and a guide to the world of literature and publishing where ‘poultry’ writers reign supreme; as ‘poetry is neck and neck with classical music, racing twenty lengths ahead of sculpture and 16th century verse drama (. . .) furlongs in front of the tailenders, prose fiction, jazz and blues music, culinary practices, sock darning, sea-shell arranging’.
As a writer of literary fiction, a long-ago winner of the Banker Prize (sic) and a ‘peripatetic artist’ Proctor needs to accept work opportunities when he can. As he says later in the book ‘I chose the writer’s life. Eventually I learned this was all part of it. This is how ye get by. Jobs here and jobs there and most of the time it is just fucking shite but what can you do, one’s hands are tied by the effin economics of it all’.
After his long suffering and beloved wife Hannah notices a previously ignored invitation from The House of Art and Aesthetics to attend a six-week writer’s residency in an unnamed location with lots of canals, to which a plane journey from Glasgow is required, our hero / anti-hero sets off on a roller coaster adventure. This is literally the case as the ‘toty car’ lent by the residency organisers often fails to get him to his far-flung and not well signposted destinations.
The narrative follows his six-week journey and is interspersed with short stories and creative pieces that sometimes reflect the writing tasks that Proctor sets aspiring writers in schools, secure units and community venues during the residency.
The trip is bad timing as Proctor does not want to be away from his family as his daughter is about to give birth, and Kelman describes a man adrift from his bearings, and sometimes from himself, dealing with unfamiliar surroundings and committed to work that prevents him spending time on his overdue novel. As he comments ‘a writer gets a job in residence so not to write. What an extraordinary jape society practices upon us all’.
The book’s parallel themes of what it is to create; to be a writer; a teacher; a promoter of writing, creativity and of one’s own work are balanced alongside the joys and challenges of ageing, masculinity, family life and overall what it is to be human.
Kelman stuffs the book full of tongue in cheek literary discussions and diversions, internal musings and many laugh out loud passages. Proctor is vexed about poor food choices, uncomfortable beds, inadequate cars, heating in hotel rooms, road signs, alcohol, ageing male bodies, sexuality and libido, smoking, birds and wildlife, canals and water and the countryside as well as bigger concerns like differences between art and writing, philosophy and philosophers, religion, death and the process of being honest in writing. This is basically the stuff of life from the big to the flotsam and jetsam of the everyday.
God’s Teeth is about the making of art, the world of the writer and what motivates someone to take up what Kelman’s subject sees as a noble calling. Proctor thinks of himself as ‘a suffering individual on behalf of humanity’ who attempts to convey this to his sometimes unreceptive audiences.
His strong but fragile sense of self is often cruelly diminished by radio interviewers who introduce him as ‘Jack Proctor, you’re the chap who writes the swearie words’ and event chairs who ask him to read from ‘the novel with the swearie words’. He is also frequently introduced ‘as a proud Scot Jock [who] writes in Lallans.’ Familiar experiences for Kelman no doubt; and a set of experiences that have made him feel labelled, boxed and caricatured – in a sense diminishing the range and creativity of his work.
Throughout the novel Proctor cocks a snook at writers who frequent the literary festival and events circuit, with digs at ‘a well-known writer from New Zealand’, esoteric dilettantes, glamorous young women called Chloe and (even worse) local best-selling debut authors whose families and friends pack out reading events and have no interest in the work of the established writers appearing alongside them.https://www.youtube.com/embed/Wsrk4FVGmRQ?feature=oembed
Various passages cover writing workshops where Proctor feels both inspired and frustrated by the participants. He meets Mary whom he first thinks unlikely to be an accomplished writer, but amends his opinion when he hears her read, calling her ‘a hero’ whose work should be published but might not be in today’s current climate. Conversely arguing with workshop participants in one session, he says ‘how come persons seek to write books who have no interest in books?’
The book highlights the real-life financial insecurity for many writers who are inevitably self-employed and rely on remembering to ask for, keep and present receipts for food, lodgings and travel to the tax-man.
Proctor forgets this until nearly the end of the six week sojourn after his wife begins to suspect that the organisers – Cultural Officers, Events Officers and the like, many whom he calls ‘Bringlish’ (the posh arts admin people) – are not paying expenses and that her husband is being exploited.
Proctor partly feels that this is inevitable as ‘Most of us who write for money don’t write for money. This is because we don’t get any and know we won’t. Other artists do get paid for writing. This is because their own art is not literary’. He also comments rather despairingly that organisers are stretching their limited budgets by employing ‘C-listers like myself at the minimum cost’.
Jack Proctor is a multi-layered, multi-dimensional persona – one who has numerous layers, drives and emotions. He is curmudgeonly but not a misanthrope as he enjoys the company of others, although values his own inner world and the reality of his family more. God’s Teeth is about being adrift in a world where the personal moves into the public arena, and where the writer feels that he has no control over his outputs that are partly seen as vehicles for profit.
The final passage in the book sees Proctor rant to a university employee about the fact that creativity amongst the young and others is being stifled, naming many culprits including the internet and the fact that most people, even those seeking knowledge, never access primary sources.
He states with passion and indignation: ‘I had a glorified view not just of art departments but colleges and universities as intellectual hotbeds. When I discovered the truth the disappointment of that stayed with me and it’s with me right now’.
The book’s last line implores the reader to take action and to create – ‘One needs to talk art too. Just talk it, and then after that of course ye just do it, ye just go ahead’. This final call to arms ends an astonishing book that confirms James Kelman’s right to be seen as a global literary figure beyond any doubt.
God’s Teeth is a rich, moving, beautifully put together story and book and a worthy addition to the work of James Kelman. There are lots of typical Kelmanesque touches with the use of imagined terms such as Vibretticism, made-up writers and citing real life names: the former a stylistic reference which other Scottish voices of heresy – Alasdair Gray and Tom Nairn – also utilised to indicate their escape into a libationary self-created language.
It offers a set of insights into the vagarities of the modern literary world, the incessant world of festivals, events and their industry of hangers-on, the need for self-promotion and selling your soul in a world where serious and radical ideas are then simplified, made safe or marked as from ‘dangerous, difficult’ voices – like Kelman.
Gerry Hassan is Professor of Social Change at Glasgow Caledonian University, Book Editor of Bella Caledonia and a writer and commentator who is author and editor of more than two dozen books on Scottish and UK politics and social change. His writing and research can be found at: www.gerryhassan.com