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The Wants

By chance, I finished two books recently with ‘want’ in the title. As good a reason as any, I thought, to blog…


He Wants is the follow-up to Alison Moore’s excellent debut novel The Lighthouse which, as you may recall, appeared on the 2012 Booker shortlist — remarkable not just for being a coup for any debut novel, but for its being produced by the tiny publisher Salt (one of two indie publishers on that year’s shortlist). Again a short, tightly focused novel in which a certain melancholy seems to flow from the characters to pervade the text, He Wants has a slightly larger cast, but is very much in the same vein as Moore’s first book. It’s a story of repressed longings, buried memories, veiled but very real threats. We follow Lewis Sullivan, a retired RE teacher, as he potters through identical dull days: his daughter brings him soup he doesn’t want; sometimes he goes to the pub for a shandy and a sausage roll. Meanwhile, his father Lawrence is maundering in a retirement home, and Lewis’s daughter Ruth has a marginally more lively but ultimately similarly stultifying life: generation after generation, members of the Sullivan family seem destined to stumble into ruts they can’t escape from. It’s not like they even want to be in the village; Lewis often encounters neighbours he’d plainly like never to have to see again (Moore withholds the reasons for one mysetrious, violent encounter just long enough). Even the reader may not, due to the similarity of their names, be immune to the way Lewis, a teacher like Lawrence, often gets confused for the older man. Into this network of misspent lives comes Sydney, Lewis’s long-absent childhood friend, who seems at first a kind of spiv, but is soon revealed to be something more than just a chancer: he may be Lewis’s way out.

This is a thematically tight-knit novel: the characters’ desires, their “wants”, are referenced throughout, from wishes for vast life changes to regrets over the most minute of missed opportunities. The chapter titles, too, alert us to these: almost all begin ‘He wants’ or ‘He wanted’, in reference to Lewis, Lawrence, Sydney et al. When change comes for Lewis, it’s in a scene that confirms what the novel has spent a while obliquely hinting at (and I had wondered if I was reading too much into these hints), and although it’s almost as cathartic for the reader as for the character, I slightly felt that we peep behind the curtain, so to speak, at this moment. One of The Lighthouse‘s great pleasures was how the delicious cropping of its ending demonstrated to perfection the old saw about things being unsaid being as important as those said. It’s satisfying to give Lewis the opportunity to articulate what he really wants, and indeed to grasp it, but I felt a little of this slim book’s subtlety slipped away here.

There’s also a whimsical tone which sat uneasily with me. A loan shark character, Barry Bolton, has the name and the demeanour of a comic book villain, and fails to embody much of a threat, while characters’ obsessions over the right mug to drink coffee from, or what sausage roll they would or would not like to eat, push this book in the unwelcome direction of something like Rachel Joyce’s Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, in which the deliberately implausible setup and a whimsical tone detracts from any sense the characters are at any real risk and, therefore, from any sense that they have grown (or deserve our sympathies). Moore’s book is better by an order of magnitude than Joyce’s, but its depiction of village life recalls John Major’s much-derided description of “long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers” — a place which, despite references to mobile phones and the Tottenham, might be stuck in 1954, not 2014(ish). Which may very well be what a lot of England is like, and may be contributing to the characters’ inertia, but is a little unthrilling to read about.

From over the pond — specifically, Brooklyn’s beautiful Book Court, where I bought my copy — comes Jonathan Miles‘s Want Not (Mariner Books). While in Moore’s novel, want colours her every character’s thoughts, Miles’s is thematically dense, exploring all manner of notions of (that unspoken half-phrase the title alludes to) waste. Here is bodily waste, food waste from restaurants, ordinary trash, waste paper (complete with indentity-theft-worthy documents), nuclear waste, wasted opportunity, characters one might accurately summarise as “wasters”, etc, etc. It all gets a bit much. It seems like there are a bunch of American authors (oddly enough, many called Jonathan) who would like to be Jonathan Franzen — or maybe there’s some Ur-writer at whom they’re all aiming, and eventually there’ll be a Big American Novel of Ideas credited solely to Jonathan, an icon without need of a surname.

Want Not is a long, thickly plotted, sometimes infuriating book, in which three sets of lives — that of a linguist whose life is collapsing around him following his divorce, that of a “freegan” couple dumpster-diving for food and living in a squat furnished with other people’s trash, and a debt collection agency’s head honcho — affect one another in (yes) unexpected ways.These are clever interactions, but it takes a while for them to be revealed, and the journey to that point involves a lot of longueurs and digressions. Miles, you feel, has sat for a while brainstorming every connotation the word “waste” brings to mind, then done a lot of research to become an expert on all these things. In the course of 386 pages, the reader learns the symptoms and effects of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, the method for skinning and butchering a dead deer, how to “trick out” a Jeep to pimpmobile standards, how long a language can be expected to “live” unchanged, and many, many, many other things. As in Franzen, what we have in Want Not is something like the old “novel of information” which seeks to contain as much as it can about the world by, well, containing as much as it can. (Don DeLillo’s Underworld is perhaps the great example of the genre; it too deals with garbage and waste, especially the enormous, defunct (real-life) landfill in New York which — in the kind of life-imitating-DeLillo twist in which the 2000s has excelled — reopened after 9/11 to accommodate the waste after the disaster.) Often these are fascinating; I’ve not read a more shocking (in a good way) description of the physical sensation of giving birth, for instance, though obviously I’m not in a position to gainsay his description, either, and I wonder whether it rings true with mothers who read this book? Sometimes, though, a little pruning or tightening wouldn’t have gone amiss. When Matty, the freegans’ loser houseguest, gets trapped in a trash compactor and has to think fast to avoid being crushed to death, the book spends several pages of lyrical prose describing his actions and thought processes; it seemed an oddly stately way to describe frantic activity. Even bit-part characters get lengthy flashbacks, backstories, inner lives; it’s certainly comprehensive. For me it felt — as lots of novels of information can do — a little like it was a book that was exciting in the planning, but which had grown a little ungainly in the telling. That said, it’s a novel about conspicuous consumption and brazen waste, set in present-day New York, and for it to be excessive and capacious and all-encompassing is, in the end, entirely appropriate.


In an effort to join everything together in an inextricably interlinked web of work-displacement, I’ve signed up to Goodreads (on which posts from this blog are repeated, which in turn appear on my Twitter feed, which also reposts items from the Glasgow Coma Scale Tumblr…).

As well as letting me engage with readers — you can ask me a question on there! — this has already provided me with many happy hours of work-adjacent but not actual work activity by allowing me to add all the books I’ve ever read (give or take one or two shameful ones, like that Lisa Jewell book I bought one evening from Waterstones in Glasgow because it had a nice cover, and because I had been drinking). There’s a competitive streak that makes me want to have the most books on there. 1,360 and counting…


Boats at Rest in Mount's Bay by Alfred Wallis 1855-1942

Boats at Rest in Mount’s Bay by Alfred Wallis 1855-1942

New from me today: a feature for the Scottish Book Trust website discussing ten excellent books on art and artists. There are fictional artists and artworks in novels by Siri Hustvedt, Sarah Hall and Jonathan Gibbs, biographies telling the often bizarre life stories of artists Alfred Wallis and Robert Mapplethorpe, and (as I’ve described it on my Tumblr page already) the single most vital book I read in my research for The Glasgow Coma Scale: the 1987 compilation of David Sylvester’s interviews with Francis Bacon: starkly candid, and indispensable, in my view, for an artist of any variety.

On Vanishing

Here’s an interesting piece (yes, on Buzzfeed – don’t worry, it’s not ’Ten cats dressed up as other types of cat’) by Catherine Lacey on writing in the first person, and the journalistic convention of attempting to conflate the author of a novel with its narrator. ‘Is it based on a true story?’ is one of those bizarre rather impertinent questions people ask people who’ve written a piece of fiction — a question whose equivalent you feel they might feel silly asking, say, an architect (‘Are all your designs based on a house you lived in as a child?’) or a teacher (‘Do you only teach children the things you were taught yourself?’). In a way it’s the flipside of the old saw about everyone having a novel in them, the implication being that all a published author has done is write down the kind of thing that has happened to them in life, and how hard can that be?

I also identified with Lacey’s description of the sharper kind of wanderlust she feels – a desire to disappear entirely (a shared dream of writers?) – which makes me wonder if, for her, as for me, the act of vanishing into writing a book satisfies this urge. Few other occupations allow the practitioner the chance to inhabit a life that is, even if the journalist who interviewed Lacey didn’t seem to grasp this, almost entirely unlike her own. I don’t believe that writing a novel should be a way to work directly and overtly through ‘issues’ (though in some cases writing can be useful therapy), but maybe it goes some way to assuaging a desire to throw everything in the air and go off to start a new life on the other side of the planet on a whim. (I feel this urge every so often.)

You work in the dark, so to speak, and until you show your manuscript to other people, or discuss it in any specific terms, to write a book means to hide in plain sight, to spend your time with people no-one else knows, to go to a place where no-one can really find you. My partner Mark was astonished on reading the first draft of The Glasgow Coma Scale: ‘So this is who you’ve been hanging out with all year!’ If you can’t flee to that uninhabited desert island in real life, you can live vicariously through the experiences of someone who is shaped by you, and shapes you too.

Summer Reading

Everyone is else is talking about the books they’re going to read this summer (including, ahem, an exceptionally well-curated list at Refinery29) so here are my picks. These are the titles – well, eight of them – I’ll be reading in the park round the corner, on the annual pilgrimage to Festival-glitzy Edinburgh next month and, with a bit of luck, on some short European trips in September… September still counts as summer, right?

'Yellow King' curtain fabric not included

‘Yellow King’ curtain fabric not included

All My Puny Sorrows – Miriam Toews (Faber)
Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth (Canongate)
These two have had knockout reviews, the former from my editor, who has (ahem) impeccable taste. I read Emma Jane Unsworth’s first novel, Hungry, The Stars and Everything, and suspect there will be some commonality in theme despite their very different settings: Hungry in a fancy restaurant where a reviewer has a very strange meal, Animals in a shared house where two girls inspire each other to go on ever more (self) destructive benders.

Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys – Viv Albertine (Faber)
I’m a sucker for music memoirs – even when, as in this case, I don’t know all that much of the work of the musician in question. That said, I did go and see Albertine – of The Slits, The Flying Lizards and latterly playing solo under her own name – play a gig at the Old Blue Last in 2010, and she seemed astute and likeably self-effacing. And her book has a great title.

The Eyrie – Tim Winton (Picador)
A new Winton is always an event; on the surface, this looks like the poet of the Australian landscape has turned his attention to more urban matters. Winton’s prose is always wondrous, and there’s a fableistic quality to the writing, especially in the more straightforward (and short) novels like Breath, his last novel, whose descriptions of surfing elevated it from a sport to a sort of transcendental experience.

From the Fatherland with Love – Ryu Murakami, trans. Ralph McCarthy, Charles De Wolf and Ginny Tapley Takemori (Pushkin Press)
I’ve been meaning to read ‘the other Murakami’ for a while now and, as is often the case, it was the cover of this new reissue from the estimable Pushkin Press that sold this one to me. It sounds entirely bonkers.

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts – Amos Tutuoloa (Faber)
The bold new geometric jackets Faber’s given their reissues of six paperbacks by Nigerian author Amos Tutuola make them utterly irresistible. Faced with the choice, I plumped for the one whose title I knew from the David Byrne/Brian Eno record.

Sum – David Eagleman (Canongate)
I stayed away from this when it first came out, as it suggested something a bit whimsical or cod-religious, until a friend recommended it recently. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but here are forty stories/thought experiments postulating what one could be like.

The Wanderer – Timonthy J. Jarvis (Perfect Edge Books)
I was lucky enough to read this book in manuscript a while back, and to be able to give this incredibly imaginative, splendidly weird book a blurb. I’m looking forward to revisiting a book which both celebrates and subverts the tropes of weird, Gothic and horror fiction – found manuscripts, immortal beings, the anthology format – so gleefully and masterfully.

The Glasgow Coma Scale nominated for Not the Booker Prize

Some Not the Booker contenders

Every year since 2012, The Guardian newspaper has run a blog series/competition called the Not the Booker Prize, in parallel to the actual Man Booker prize (the longlist for which was announced last week). Unlike the real Booker, this prize includes a public vote: first, nominations are sought, then from the lengthy longlist thus assembled — 99 books this year — six are picked to progress to the next round, to be read by hapless Sam Jordison, who is in charge of the thing.

The Glasgow Coma Scale has been nominated (hurrah!), and so joins those other 98 titles; and I, therefore, join 98 other authors who will spend the next few days encouraging, cajoling, bullying and offering imaginary bribes to voters to try and get enough votes to proceed to the next round.

What you need to do — I stress the word need; there’s a mug on offer as a prize, you know: The Guardian is asking voters to pick two books from the longlist and write a 100-word review of each. So, merely write a hundred words or so on The Glasgow Coma Scale, plus one other, post them on the Guardian thread with the word ‘vote’ in your post, and all will be well.

I will point out here that GCS is, at a little over 200 pages long, among the shorter books on that list, and since voting closes at midnight on Sunday, there’s ample time to read it before then: how about buying it half-price here?

I will also point out that I drink a lot of tea, and a new mug would be actually quite useful.

Incidentally, the above illustration — which I spent time putting together in Photoshop when I should have been doing actual work — represents the only other NtB-longlisted books I’ve read, all of which are excellent.

The Glasgow Coma Scale Tumblr


Everyone and everything has a Tumblr these days — even books and book publishers. (Though still it mostly seems to be used for porn.) I set up a Tumblr for The Glasgow Coma Scale months back, then thought today I had perhaps better put some STUFF on it. I’m using it as a sort of retrospective sketchbook or moodboard to show some of the influences on the book: art works I looked at and thought about, books that were useful, songs I was listening to, and random gubbins that, dreamlike, had an effect on the way the book went. Have a gander.

“I read it in The Times… tomorrow’s Times.”

I was, as they say, cock-a-hoop — and what does that really mean? — to hear from my excellent friend Jennifer that The Glasgow Coma Scale was reviewed in The Times today (Saturday, 26th July). I wouldn’t dream of subverting their paywall, but the words you need to know are “assured, original, witty”, plus some other very nice things.

On looking the phrase up, I learn that cock-a-hoop may have its origins in some technical term involving turning on a tap and letting alcohol flow. Well… all right then!

On guddling around in dialect

Mony a mickle maks a muckle. Photo: Mark C.O'Flaherty

Mony a mickle maks a muckle. Photo: Mark C.O’Flaherty

It didn’t take me long, when I was thinking about the story that would become The Glasgow Coma Scale, to realise that I faced a fundamental decision: on dialect. The book is set in Glasgow, and many of the characters are Glaswegians; so how was I going to represent their way of talking? Just by sprinkling an ‘aye’ here and a ‘naw’ there? Or should it be something more intensive? Something more… difficult?

I grew up in Glasgow being questioned over, or mocked about, my accent, which sounds distinctly un­-Glaswegian and means I often have to issue caveats – ‘I am Scottish, despite the accent.’ (The author Janice Galloway – you may need a dustpan and brush to sweep up that name – once delighted me when she was signing my copy of All Made Up by describing it as ‘an accent that’s travelled’.) So to try and write characters who employed ‘the patter’, as it’s known, was a daunting prospect: it meant trying to replicate in text a form of speech that I was very accustomed to hearing, but not to speaking.

Still: lots of things that are difficult are worthwhile, and I had the safety net of being able to look to that tradition in Scots literature of employing not just individual words that don’t quite have English-language equivalents, but of the variant spellings and the phonetic renderings of everyday speech. Trainspotting and the works of James Kelman are obvious recent comparators, but most Scottish authors will deploy even in ‘standard English’ writing a resonant bit of Scots lingo: a ‘cooried in’ here, a ‘glaikit’ there. The important element was to try to use context to make these words’ meanings comprehensible to a reader unfamiliar with them: quite a nice challenge in itself. And no different from when you encounter ‘flocculent’ in John Banville (or Nabokov) for the first time and have to consult your encyclopaedia or, more likely, Wiktionary.

Then there are those terms for which a phonetic rendering is unimprovable. Any day on Sauchiehall Street you might hear a harassed mum implore her boisterous child, ‘Haud your wheesht!’ How to put that in standard English? ‘Hold your tongue’ seems a bit fierce, ‘Hold your hush’ unnatural, ‘Hold your breath’ downright mean. Nope: the best translation of ‘wheesht’ is ‘wheesht’. And, as a writer, once you’ve committed to that, why not also to that ‘Haud’ – and then to a terse ‘yer’ or ‘yir’ instead of the long vowel sound of ‘your’? Suddenly the language starts speaking for itself.

What was important to me was that the dialogue seemed authentic to the characters. When we first meet Angus, a born-and-bred Glaswegian from a working class background, he’s living out on the streets; to have him speak in BBC-announcer RP English was of course not unthinkable, but it seemed it would be a missed opportunity. You can pay tribute to a place in all kinds of ways; to me, an effort to work with the rhythms and cadences and vocabulary I hear around my home city was one way of praising the place. It’s a city of voracious readers, gleeful language-users, and haverers – that’s people soapboxing and going on a wee bit long – and I wanted my book to reflect that. And while consistency of spelling was important, I was aware that not every Glaswegian speaks the same way, up to and including those of us with a ‘travelled’ accent, so there are variations among characters, from the thicker-spoken to the more anglicised. (There’s even an Aberdonian in there. I hope I got a plausible Aberdeen-ism into his dialogue too.)

There was another reason, too, one which was important to me and, I hope, will affect readers likewise. This was, as I say, a hard decision – why not set the book elsewhere and/or leave out the Weegie dialect? – and part of my motivation was to do something I’d never done before: at least to try it, to work out how (or if) I could achieve it, and to teach myself something. A first novel it may be, but The Glasgow Coma Scale is not the first book I’ve finished, and each time I’m keen to try something I haven’t attempted before.

From the reader’s point of view, in turn, I hope that the little bit more engagement the text asks as you accustom yourself to the dialogue between Angus’s Scots accent and Lynne’s English accent yields some sort of reward. A reader is a translator already; how else do those funny squiggles on the page turn first into signifying words and then to scenes you can visualise in your mind’s eye? Bringing in non-standard English is just one little extra wrinkle to an already pretty impressive act of engagement by the reader. And it never did Irvine Welsh’s popularity any harm.

On another level, it’s one more way in which Angus and Lynne – who are thrown together by circumstance and spend the book attempting, in an Odd Couple type of scenario, to try to understand one another – differ visibly on the page.

At the very least, I hope I can bring the word ‘fankle’ to a slightly wider audience.

First reviews of The Glasgow Coma Scale

Checking that the mistake on p.171 was deleted properly

Checking that the mistake on p.171 was deleted properly

It’s a week until The Glasgow Coma Scale is published, and I’m delighted I’ve already had a couple of reviews. The Skinny calls it “an intriguing debut, capturing the psyches of two very different people as they look sidelong at the reasons their lives haven’t gone quite as well as they’d hoped” — those two being Angus, the former art teacher fallen on hard times, and Lynne, the ex-pupil who helps him out not quite out of the goodness of her heart.

The Stirling Observer has also published a generous review which turns out not to be available online, intriguingly demonstrating that ‘offline-only’ journalism still exists in 2014. As well as discussing the journey Angus and Lynne go on together — becoming more dependent on one another the more their increasing enmity makes them want to break apart — the review notes that the book “turns its gaze to questions of gentrification, economics… art… [and] the personal tussle involving in deciding whether to declare yourself a resident of Maryhill or North Kelvinside.”

Above: it’s me, last week, having opened the parcel containing finished copies of the book. I asked Mark to document this process, figuring that there’s only one time in my life I’ll ever get to see final copies of my first book for the first time. As I had no involvement in the cover, which was designed by clever Jonathan Gray, I can fairly say how terrific the finished product looks. It’s a book you’ll want to pick up and stroke when you see it in the shops next week. And then you’ll want to take it to the till.