James Kelman is Scotland's most influential contemporary prose artist. This is a book-length study of his groundbreaking novels, analysing and contextualising each in detail. It argues that while Kelman offers a coherent and consistent vision of the world, each novel should be read as a distinct literary response to particular aspects of contemporary working-class language and culture. Historicised through diverse contexts such as Scottish socialism, public transport, emigration, ‘Booker Prize’ culture and Glasgow's controversial ‘City of Culture’ status in 1990, the book offers readings of Kelman's style, characterisation and linguistic innovations. This study resists the prevalent condemnations of Kelman as a miserable realist, and produces evidence that he is acutely aware of an unorthodox, politicised literary tradition which transgresses definitions of what literature can or should do. Kelman is cautious about the power relationship between the working-class worlds he represents in his fiction, and the latent preconceptions embedded in the language of academic and critical commentary. In response, the study is self-critical, questioning the validity and values of its own methods. Kelman is shown to be deftly humorous, assiduously ethical, philosophically alert and politically necessary.
This introductory chapter focuses on James Kelman, a writer whom many critics consider to be the chief among a school of ‘miserablists’. The discussion begins with a section on the various opinions writers and critics have of Kelman, who has become the senior Scottish fiction writer of urban alienation, and from there shifts to a study of his creative work, which ranges from short stories to plays and novels. It shows that his fictional texts are broadly variable, polyvalent, inconsistent and fluid, while the voices of the narrator and the characters are so intertwined that it is often impossible to separate the two (direct speech and indirect speech). The chapter ends with a section on the language of Kelman's realism.
This chapter discusses Kelman's The Busconductor Hines, a novel that reflects his tenure as a busconductor in Glasgow, but also notes that Kelman had many other occupations to choose from and tries to determine why he chose a busconductor as the subject of his first novel. It addresses the question why Kelman placed his protagonist on Glasgow buses, and introduces the idea of ‘Medit’ sections, also examining the belief that Glasgow should never be forgotten in Kelman's texts.
This chapter examines A Chancer, whose protagonist is a habitual gambler with a tendency to leave social situations, noting that this novel is considered as Kelman's puritanical text and is at the extreme end of the spectrum of Kelman's realist project in its goal to present an unrestricted ‘facticity’. It explains why Kelman chooses to allow extended access to Tammas' mind only during gambling episodes. The chapter also considers the protagonist's departure from Glasgow, which was not previously presented in The Busconductor Hines.
This chapter studies A Disaffection, one of Kelman's novels that feature a character with a working-class background. Unlike the protagonists of the other novels, however, A Disaffection's Patrick Doyle is the only one who attends university. The chapter states that Kelman describes Doyle as ‘a naive character’ and that he forces a political distinction between him and Doyle. Doyle is a character caught between two worlds, each of which he continually defines against the other. Kelman uses him as a representative of an alienated Scotland, and actively criticises education in this novel. The chapter also discusses the theme of control and the concrete references to the proper nouns of real historical personages.
This chapter discusses Kelman's 1994 novel, How late it was, how late, which is voiced from Sammy Samuels' perspective and features the Hardie Street police station. It notes that this novel features Kelman's complex of resistances to the first person. The chapter describes Sammy as the first character through which Kelman celebrates the musicality of the Glasgow voice, one who shows an enriching evolution of Kelman's study of the relationship between sound and site, identity and speech, and locality and accent. It also takes a look at Sammy's poor literacy and the dynamics of the narrative, which are controlled by an active interpretation of space and sound, and examines the gap between textuality and orality.
This chapter takes a look at two more of Kelman's novels, namely Translated Accounts and You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free, first examining the type of language Kelman uses in his fiction, namely ‘dialect’ and ‘vernacular’. This area of Kelman's work has been hotly contested by both cultural commentators and academics. The chapter then introduces Kelman's novels Translated Accounts and You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free, where he approaches the violence of nationality through two very different frames, although he confronts language varieties in both novels. It also studies the suspicion of foreigners that is addressed in these novels.