Here are some excerpts from Kelly’s piece:
My initial point of connection with this piece, and why I find it so meaningful, is that it serves as a far more developed and insightful articulation of a verdict passed by a friend of mine on an afternoon we spent in Waterstone’s around that time. This friend, whose opinion I respect very much and who has always had a gift for brevity, lifted a copy of the new release I was looking at, and said: “This is what happens when you want to be a writer, but have absolutely nothing to say”. I read it anyway. I concurred thoroughly (and the only reason I don’t mention the novel in question is because I don’t think it fair to pass a damning criticism in print unless you’re going to do the writer the courtesy of a comprehensive review, and the extended book review is not a medium I have the access to work in, unfortunately).
However, Stuart Kelly does, and are his statements quoted above (“devoid of intent”, “engages with nothing”, “speaking for not speaking out”) not just an artful elaboration upon that sentence spoken by my friend that day in the book shop? The complaint is the same. A work of literary fiction should say something to us. Its basic function should be to engage with the characters’ culture, to offer genuine substance (in terms of artistic content and aesthetic form), to reveal characters with a humanity that appears organic and is worthy of our empathy, and above all, should always be “grappling with reality in all its surrealism” … because if not this, then what? If a novel is not engaging directly and authentically with the surreality of this life, then why would we want to read it?
The aforementioned James Wood defined this ‘non-mimsical’ form of realism as such:
I believe that when we read literary fiction, this is indeed what we are seeking. Truthfulness, but also ‘life brought to different life’. Fiction has to be recognizable as arising from an actual lived life for it to be truly evocative for us, before we can then appreciate the surreality of the situations and emotions that can feasibly occur. Otherwise it’s plain artifice. This distinctive ‘lifeness’, as Wood calls it, is surely the polar opposite of fiction that is attempting to draw on the appeal of being “calculatedly twee” and suffers the “dreadful externality” of the falsely-drawn character.
It is especially demoralizing to identify with Kelly’s point that “contemporary Scottish literature has moved towards … spiralling into its own fantasies”, because its antithesis, ‘lifeness’, has traditionally (or, at least, for the past three decades or so) been what Scottish writers have conveyed so exceptionally, incredibly well. I am aware that some people don’t see any value in considering ‘Scottish literature’ as a homogeneous body in any way (and fully appreciate the validity of such an argument), but for me, speaking entirely as a reader, there is most definitely an additional pleasure, something that is particularly special and redolent about those moments in literature when you recognize exactly a representation or a characteristic or a reaction that seems to emanate directly from the daily vagaries of your own life and the people you’ve known; a world which for me has been exclusively the town of Airdrie and city of Glasgow for the past three decades. Of course there are junctures in the prose written in every corner of the world where we feel that same awe and revelation, as the ability of the truly great writer is to capture aspects of humanity that are universal. Yet the words of Salvador Dali (as adapted from Michel de Montaigne) describe the importance of engaging with one’s own culture towards this end:
And so my contention remains that there is indeed that thrill of the local, where a uniquely Scottish means of expression or behaviour strikes you perfectly as the way that you and the people you know have lived your lives, and continue to live them now. That instance of recognizable humanity, and the greater articulation or clarification that it can bring: it is the pleasure of an eludication of life, something that you could call Affinitive Realism, if you have an interest in these largely useless labels (which I will, for at least the remainder of this piece).
From the revival of the literary novel in Scotland led by James Kelman and Alasdair Gray in the early-mid 1980s, this ‘Affinitive Realism’ has surely been a hallmark of the best literature produced here. As I expect most serious readers do, I carry around with me these most enduring moments from the books I’ve read, the instances that were to my mind recognizably and often profoundly human, these actions and emotions and utterances that were most certainly ‘non-mimsical’.
When Janice Galloway in her novel The Trick Is To Keep Breathing (1989) allows Joy the defiant but weary attempt at humour in the face of her imploding marriage: “I thought the answer was soul-searching and he thought it was split-crotch knickers”, before finally the concession comes: “Now there was no talk at all, only the sound of two people suffocating into different pillows”.
In that brilliant closing pub section of It Might Be Jerusalem (1991) by Thomas Healy, where the emaciated convalescent Rab, on his return to the social scene, is slowly becoming drunk and happy. He wishes he could lean over and lick the sweat from the brow of his loving partner Winnie, but stops himself because you couldn’t try to be romantic there, his feeling that the “place was wrong”, them both being trapped by the “sawdust floor and cheap red wine”.
Or the dark humour of the resentful marriage in Duncan McLean’s story ‘After Guthrie’s’ from the collection Bucket of Tongues (1992). Ronny leaves the pub early with a carry-out because he’s too depressed to stay, and when his wife Carol gets home and finds a note asking her to down the glass of whisky he’s left her then slash his throat as he sleeps, she refuses on the basis that the whisky is mostly water. The selfish “dirty bastard” had “another think coming” if he thought she’d do him that favour now.
The confusion and self-loathing of the narrator of Jackie Kay’s Why Don’t You Stop Talking (2002), as her compulsive urge to talk and argue continually gets her in bother throughout the day. We later learn this has estranged her from her parents, and she thinks: “I reckon families should be banned. They should find some other way of doing it”. This leads her to consider her compulsion as a form of physical malady or disability, and to cut her own tongue with a knife as punishment.
Manolo, the lead character of The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven (2006) by Alan Warner, remembering himself as a boy being sent out to buy new tights for the chambermaid of his family hotel because hers were ripped, then fantasizing about being her husband, buying her a gift he knows she will like. How some time later after a torrid day, he goes back to the same shop, buys the same pair again, and leaves them anonymously in her mailbox.
And the end of Mo said she was quirky (2012) by James Kelman, when Helen sees a homeless man, believes it is her long-lost brother, and convinces herself his skinny frame is the same one her father used to call “coat-hanger shoulders” in the days of their childhood. She chases after the figure desperately, leaving the reader wondering if it can really be him or if she has deluded herself with this fabricated image.
These are a few arbitrary examples of ‘Affinitive Realism’ or ‘lifeness’, these moments that every reader finds within the novels and stories they come to love, and are to my mind, that dimension of literature that cannot really exist if the fiction is “calculatedly twee”. The fragments of ‘lifeness’ that I have listed may be emotive or surreal or dramatic, but they are certainly not ‘fey’ or ‘conceited’. They are not overly sentimentalized, nor instances of contrived artificiality, and nor do these characters lack humanity. The emotions and thoughts are organic, and they are transmitted to us sincerely, from within these artistically-rendered yet very real lives.
Alan McMunnigall’s Atheists is a book from this same lineage. I view it as a continuation of this modern Scottish tradition of Affinitive Realism. The book is abound with moments of ‘lifeness’, of recognizable humanity, gloriously free of both calculation and tweeness. McMunnigall’s brief introduction to the collection states that these stories could have been situated anywhere and there is truth to this, there is a universality to the nature of urban experience, but again for me as a reader, I do seek out those instances of identification with the Scottish central belt life and culture, and I find them consistently throughout this work, nestling in amongst greater thematic strands that are often distinctly existential and/or philosophical.
Atheists is, by definition, a collection of short fiction, although I see it more as a ‘community novel’ in the same vein as Winesburg, Ohio or Last Exit To Brooklyn or Trainspotting or This Is How You Lose Her, where the structure, the repeating appearances of places and/or characters, indeed the social fabric of the book itself gives the impression of a true composite work of art, a novel with many focalizers rather than one, and where the community itself arises as a protagonist.
John Updike described this beautifully in his introduction to the 2002 Modern Library version of Winesburg, Ohio (1919), stating that the book was known as:
The term ‘psychic pressure’ is so very germane to this essay – and in fact, that entire last sentence could have been written about Atheists (which would of course have made for a far more eloquent Afterword than this one). Although, like Winesburg, the setting is so simply and artfully evoked, it is the ‘psychic pressure’ being exerted on the mass of characters that drives these stories. Their actions are their ‘howl’, they are caught in the ‘warp’, and the reader is drawn to try and understand where this pressure is coming from and what influence it is having on responses and behaviours.
The ‘community novel’ structure of very different narrative voices, different text types (third-person narratives, consciously-written first-person accounts, flash fragments, newspaper articles), recurring characters shown at different points in their lives, and several discontinuous plotlines that run throughout, is important in establishing that Atheists is a democratic work, rather than a voyeuristic exercise in examining some social underclass. There is no judgement nor stereotyping nor hierarchy to be found within its pages. The characters are never patronised, or held up for our disdain or horror. No voice appears to carry any greater weight or value than another. The stories stand as faithful accounts of those lives, and there are moments of real tenderness and contentment in spite of the multitudinous difficulties encountered by the residents.
In the classic work The Lonely Voice (1962) by Frank O’Connor, the phenomena in short fiction of an artist who writes primarily and compulsively about a certain group of people was discussed extensively:
He went on to discuss the problems facing such groups:
I would add Alan McMunnigall’s unemployed young men to O’Connor’s list of ‘submerged population groups’, seeing as these stories appear to be focalized exclusively through male characters. I can imagine this may displease some readers in this age of literary tokenism (the continual trumpeting about how diverse the writers in a particular collection are, before any discussion of the work itself, remains a depressingly tiresome sight), but I get a strong sense that this was a conscious artistic choice, arising from the fact that Alan McMunnigall was a young man growing up in Sighthill, and he wants to give us this experience with as much authentic, lived, inner ‘lifeness’ as possible. McMunnigall’s submerged population group is male – but it is worth noting that the only character we encounter who manages to leave the community and build a happy, successful life elsewhere is Maureen, the unappreciated and mistreated spouse of the narrator of Marriage and The Visit. There are many more female characters, but no female focalizers. It is an interesting question to consider, whether this is a statement about the “psychic pressure” and its effects being different on the men of this environment. Yet all characters, male and female, central and peripheral, appear at various times to be touched by the “absence” that O’Connor mentions, and many are deeply affected by the “intense awareness of human loneliness” – a current that sweeps over this book, both initiating and concluding a range of the stories within.
Having already remarked on the structure/composition of this work, it is important to consider an example narrative strand as a means of appreciating the book’s artfulness and its poignancy. I say with confidence that Atheists is not an eclectic mixture for the mere sake of variety. This is evident if we consider a fragment story entitled 87th Drug Death, which appears in the latter half of Ghosts, the book’s second section.
87th Drug Death is a newspaper article in its entirety; a brief paragraph detailing the passing of one Tracy Irvine, aged 26, who was found with a ‘used syringe’ close by. Tracy is said to have ‘kept strange hours’ and her parents are apparently ‘too upset to comment’. Later in the collection, in the title story Atheists, we encounter a school pupil called Tracy Irvine, whose mother comes up to the school and has a furious altercation with the fearsome teacher, Ms Pine. Tracy goes on to join the Scripture Union under Ms Pine, enacting her desire to gain the approval of the teacher who has treated her so badly.
It is the untold story of Tracy Irvine, enabled by this non-linear structure, that lends the book its subtle form of tragedy. Tracy surely felt the “absence” that O’Connor spoke of, as she attempted to find solace in the school system and in her teachers, but at some point in her life, in between the hopeful extracurricular efforts as a teenager and the end of her life (the ultimate moment of “human loneliness” as she fell to the floor and died alone), the “psychic pressure” of her existence became too much for Tracy, and her descent began.
This story is communicated by omission, by implication, we are given only these scant details, years apart, and are never privy to Tracy’s consciousness. The form and expression of 87th Drug Death is of central importance within Atheists, because it stands as the inverse of the book that houses it. 87th Drug Death is not a story of, or from, a real life. It is so very remote from its own subject, containing no emotion, no character, and no story other than an event conveyed in hackneyed language. It is purely a conclusion to an existence, the type of trite journalism that dehumanizes and trivializes a life, suggestively reducing it to a sterile piece of reported gossip. No-one who reads this could glean anything about Tracy’s experience of life or who she was – her citation in this article reduces her as a person rather than enlarges her, as receiving such coverage could/should do. She is relegated to the status of an object, a corpse, that permits the filling of some of the space in a newspaper.
This obituary of Tracy is typical of the press coverage in Atheists (a topic I’ll return to), in that it denies humanity to the people of this community and turns them into mere stereotypes (Tracy being the characteristic ‘junkie’ who went too far). Unlike 87th Drug Death, Atheists as a collection allows characters the room to speak, to tell stories, to transmit things to the reader about themselves and the situations they are faced with.
The sole similarity between 87th Drug Death and Atheists as an overall piece is in the lack of history given of the subjects, and I believe this is a crucial point with regard to the formulation of the stories, and the philosophy that underpins them. In 87th Drug Death, no history is given because Tracy is not viewed as a human being deserving of note, she is just another dead addict, and that is her only purpose from the perspective of the article’s fictionalized writer, an unidentifiable member of the press.
This lack of history is also apparent in the Atheists stories that emanate not from an outside agency such as the local media, but from the characters themselves.
These are the opening lines of the book, from the story Gravedigger:
The narrator goes on to discuss the additional tasks relating to a burial that gravediggers were not obligated to get involved in. This is the entire ‘lead-in’ to the story we are given – what the job was, and what the narrator’s general feeling about it was at the time. Nothing more in the way of backstory or circumstance. The next paragraph begins:
Again, there is no real introduction afforded to this new character. Simply his name, that he was older, and the brilliant characterizing detail of his outraged adamance that no gravedigger should ever do more than the absolute minimum necessitated by their role. This is all that’s given in terms of traditional ‘scene-setting’, and in similar fashion, the piece closes with our narrator stumbling home drunk after a day at the pub with Joe. He doesn’t make any form of material or spiritual progress via the story’s events to then emerge enriched by its end. The story is perfectly self-contained – the reader can only know the character on the basis of who they show themselves to be in this glimpse of daily life, on what actually happens, rather than an external narrator’s definitions of them and their histories.
Baxter is another story which follows this self-contained ahistorical model:
This is effectively the introduction to the story, in full. The events of the piece actually begin as such:
Now it may be curious to the reader, why William would choose to go and sit on some wasteground on a cold day to eat his lunch, but it is meaningful that his reason for doing so is not provided. The sense is that William does this purely because it’s what he does, and that is enough. Neither he nor the narrator feel the burden of having to explain or justify himself or his actions. The character has an autonomy that means the freedom from having himself framed or explicated.
And, like Gravedigger, the end of the story has not seen the protagonist make any discernible leap forward, because the ‘submerged population’ do not escape reality and experience such artificial ‘changes’, just as their actions cannot be viewed in relation to some fictive past or point of origin. It is only the significance of the presented story itself that matters, the events shown are not contextualized or evaluated within any greater or grander life framework.
This makes me think again of Kelly’s point on writers “grappling with life in all its surrealism”, as if a story like Baxter achieves anything, it is in allowing us to appreciate what you could call simply the strangeness of people, rather than exhibiting a particular fixed character type or trait. Why does William pursue Baxter? We can only speculate, because the narrator cannot know more than William does himself. William would not and cannot reflect on himself analytically, would not step outside of his own emotional consciousness and assess himself as being lonely or needy or desirous or voyeuristic, so therefore the narrator cannot do so either. He/she is limited to William’s own state of mind and his own situation. This is the power of ‘Affinitive Realism’ – that observations and emotions can feel authentic because the viewpoint is not compromised or cheapened by a move into a writerly omniscience.
It is a form of writing that stands against conceit, against the overt artifice of the ‘set-up’. In the story Bolan, the first line is:
And this is the point from which the story unfolds. And why shouldn’t it? There is no need here for backstory, no need to historicize or contextualize. In this environment, all a person has to do is to be present, and stories will happen to them. This is often how such events occur to us in our real lives, spontaneously and by chance, so this is how we are to experience them in Atheists, alongside these characters, without a more privileged viewpoint or any additional knowledge.
The narrator of Palpitation Blues says to his neighbour:
There is no further explanation of this point, no more details offered, because in life we don’t continually explain our histories, or fully and automatically re-live them in our minds on demand. This narrator seems to have nothing much to do except listen to music and eat tins of spaghetti, but the conflict he has with his neighbours has been rendered for us, and is again typical of the ahistorical Atheists story, in that these pieces stand on their own merits and are never forcibly brought to a traditional conclusion, or evaluated by a narrator who explains why a particular event was deemed worthy of articulation/expression. The stories show interactions within a community, and the human aspects and emotions that are accordingly revealed (the “howl”, to use Updike’s term).
This lack of conventional character progression, of the apparently arbitrary insignificance of where these stories choose to end, their lack of historial ‘noteworthiness’ (the sense that the events of a story are not distinct from any other day in that character’s life), are to be re-emphasized in arguably the most thematically important (and I would say the darkest and most enjoyable) narrative fibre within Atheists: that of the “auld perv”, Frank Niven.
The last time we see Frank is at the end of The Punter, the closing line being:
This sentence signifies that this is not the end of Frank Niven’s story, it means only that our part in it has finished. Frank has experienced no epiphany, there has been no resolution nor reflection. He is simply a figure, walking in the night rain, much like the nomadic anti-hero from the work of Gogol or Hamsun, going off to continue life outwith the bounds of the pages we have read.
It would have been a wholly natural reaction to anticipate a conclusive ending, considering that Niven’s tale began in The Consumer with a line that suggests a historical importance within his life:
The conventions of storytelling most familiar to readers in the West lead us to believe that a tale starting with ‘One day…’ will feature a significant event that sets the protagonist on the path to either a greater richness of life, or a tragic fall. Frank Niven achieves neither. His particular ‘One day…’ is the start of new way of life, required by a part of his nature that had presumably lay dormant beforehand, and that will go on long after he walks through that Sauchiehall St drizzle. We don’t know what prompted Frank on that day to take that step, nor how or when it will all end, but we do know that he is trapped in this reality now and seems powerless to escape or resist.
The arbitrariness, the spontaneity, of the onset of The Consumer, where what was different or unique about that particular ‘One day…’ is never stated or explored in any way, is symptomatic of a major philosophical consideration offered by Atheists, in that the entire book could feasibly be read and interpreted as a study of the conscious and unconscious (and subconscious) motives that lie behind human behaviour.
Frank Niven suddenly becomes a user of pornography, and the story develops around this arbitrariness. It is not clear if this desire came upon him suddenly or if it was something he’d been thinking about and struggling with for some time, as such contextual information is not divulged.
As the story proceeds, the question of Frank’s motivation becomes more and more abstruse. When he notices the porn magazines at the beginning of The Consumer, it is said that “on this occasion” he chose to stop and look at them. Again, the accompanying thought-process is either omitted, or there wasn’t one and Frank is reacting on instinct – perhaps his actions are the haphazard evocations of a “psychic pressure”. Perhaps McMunnigall is proferring the theory that human nature is essentially random, unquantifiable, and involuntary, and there is no way to assert form of any certainty here. Terence Brown in his prologue to Joyce’s Dubliners wrote:
Embracing this ‘givenness’ is crucial to gaining a full appreciation of Atheists. It is given that Frank Niven starts to behave this way, and it is left to the reader to arrive at a sense of why this may be occurring. Immediately after Frank starts to look at the magazines, a young guy buys one. Frank, stunned, then follows him through the streets till he goes into a tenement, leaving Frank outside.
The reader doesn’t know why Frank is doing these things, and of course the character himself doesn’t either. Yet it is the ‘givenness of the real’ that has left us, breathing outside in the cold air beside Frank, feeling that same strange physical rush he does from stepping out from the normal routines and parameters of his life, and presumably wondering what it is exactly that’s happening to him. Later when Frank is accosted by a puritanical woman in the corner shop, he could just turn and leave the store, but he doesn’t. He chooses to stay and absorb her insults in public, knowing any remonstration would be in vain. Again, this choice poses the question of why someone like Frank would act in this way, putting himself in unpleasant and often dangerous situations for no clear reason or gain.
Towards the end of The Punter, Frank does have a fleeting moment of self-reflection:
This brief instance of introspection appears within a longer section which is otherwise composed of physical actions, as he attempts to have sex with a young prostitute. It is rendered from within Frank’s own consciousness, appearing as he would have thought this, conceiving of himself from his son’s perspective (“da”), then seeming to switch perspective again in his mind, imagining what others would view this as if he was ever exposed – that the prostitute was just a “wee lassie”. Yet the fact that Frank can so readily disregard these considerations suggests that such thoughts and worries and feelings and attachments are not what impels Frank. He is being driven by something else. The logical answer would be a rapacious desire for sexual pleasure, but it is patently obvious from The Punter that he gains little or no fulfillment from his trysts. At no stage are his orgasms ever described in pleasurable terms. They merely happen, and are finished. It is, for want of a better phrase, the scratching of an itch for Frank. The itch is removed temporarily, and will return soon. There is no apologia on why this itch has started to dictate his will, or why it can seemingly not be resisted.
Characters throughout Atheists experience similar baseless, transient feelings that they either struggle to rationalize, or else don’t even think to try.
The narrator of Billy and Dixie doesn’t understand why he has never left the area, nor why his neighbours Billy and Dixie haven’t done so, despite spending their lives planning it and talking about it. They all seem to dislike being there, yearning to try life somewhere else, but nothing happens as the years go by. One reading of this story could be that humans prefer the compulsion of a constant, familiar complaint to being without any reason to complain, although again, this is only one possible interpretation.
The lead characters of Marriage and Atheists encounter these ambiguous, inexplicable junctures too. In Marriage, infidelity occurs with no preamble, no forethought, no planning or pursuit, like it is just another inevitable and requisite passage of life. Whereas in Atheists, the action to steal Ms Pine’s keys takes place almost as if the character is also watching it occur, rather than taking the action himself.
Other actions are taken that seem alternately counter-intuitive, borderline masochistic, or downright bizarre. The protagonist of Darren Sullivan telling Darren how he remembers when years earlier, Darren stole his bike: “I didn’t mean to confront him. I just opened my mouth” (a sentiment reminiscent of that cited earlier from Kay’s Why Don’t You Stop Talking). He continues to have difficulty in working out why Darren has such importance in his life, as he mopes around and neglects his work. Finally Darren does re-surface and the story ends:
Aside from the obvious questions of how this abusive act made him feel and why he didn’t react to it, this section reveals another layer to the whole subject-area of characters’ motivations. Darren Sullivan is a first-person narrative, but this ending and its total lack of resolution provokes the question of why the narrator has told this story? The story is called Darren Sullivan and the narrator recounts all of the contact he ever had with Darren, but in the end we learn next to nothing about either man. The two characters never have any real relationship, and ultimately the contact they did have was ineffectual and fairly meaningless. The only sense that can be derived from this with any certainty is that the story is more an extended piece of ‘Affinitive Realism’ than it is a conventional short story. The details of the theft, his emotion, his father’s reaction, it feels very authentic and is certainly pleasurable to read, but in fictive terms the story is effectively a ladder with nothing at the top, the denouement being that Darren spits at him and they never have further contact. It could be that this narrator is simply charting how pathetic and devoid of meaning his own existence has been – that someone like Darren remained so important in his life for so long, and although it didn’t make for much of a story, this is because life is not like a story. He is unable to turn it into one. In this world, things happen, then they stop happening and something else starts, all of equal importance or unimportance. This is human existence, as articulated via Darren Sullivan.
That same feeling, an apparent aimlessness of narrative, pervades the book’s longest story, Failure:
This brings to mind the apathy toward the telling of the tale that seems to bleed into much of the prose of Samuel Beckett, as shown here in this brief quotation from the 1946 short novella, The Expelled:
The characters of Atheists seem to me to embody this spirit of Beckett’s, whereby they don’t really see any ‘need’ to tell their stories, yet they do anyway, unbidden and largely demotivated. Everywhere there is doubt and apathy, but the voices are speaking and the stories continue to be told even though the teller often doesn’t understand the events at hand or their own part in them.
The absence of conviction and control over a story’s trajectory can be linked to the crisis of masculinity that afflicts many of the focalizing characters of Atheists. Throughout this book, males put themselves in positions where they then falter, often badly, and are left back where they started, stuck in the scheme and either cursing their failure or else remaining numb to it, drained of hope and vigour.
In a perfect expression of this thwarted masculinity, the narrator of Marriage, staring at his friend’s girlfriend, says:
This, of course, is different from the desire to simply be the one kissing her. It is more intimate, more precise, more imaginative, decidedly more sensual. A more concrete and identifiable wish. It forces the reader to think specifically of the act, the sensation, of kissing. Of what those lips were really like, both in a visual and tactile sense. But imagining is all that this narrator does. He never actually tries to kiss her, nor makes anything approaching an advance. He knows that Frankie, his friend, is more desirable to her, so contents himself with his fantasies and with the longing he feels.
Inaction also affects Frank Niven at various stages – when he fails to defend himself or flee in The Consumer, when he can’t perform with the teenage prostitute in The Punter, and even when he becomes passive in the comic story The Video Shop, meekly allowing the salesman Dermot to talk him into a particular (and expensive) set of his filthiest movie titles.
The lone Niven-like passive wanderer is a figure that stalks the landscape of this community, men driven outside to experience these moments of conscience or fear, wanting to take some form of action but never really sure of how to make it happen.
The narrator of My Life of Crime spends the early part of a day “wandering aimlessly” around the city centre, trying to steel himself for the job to be done. He thinks about going for a drink, then realizes he is shaking with trepidation. When the time comes, he cannot go through with it, and is later admonished for this failure of masculinity:
Thankfully Vince passes this verdict on him without malice, and the narrator himself doesn’t seem particularly bothered by it. At the end of the story, he has even started to take a strange pleasure from being identified as a potential ‘grass’ and threatened via letter: “…the feeling of being the centre of attention. I had to enjoy it while it lasted.”
His reaction to this treatment can be viewed as masochistic and/or cowardly, and the juxtaposition of passive cowardliness with its opposing force, a violent vengefulness, is another thread that can be found within many of the Atheists stories (these recurring issues of failed masculinity and revenge are central to why I believe McMunnigall focused on exploring how the male in this environment reacts to the particular ‘psychic pressure’ he is placed under).
The narrators of Danny Says and Atheists seem to be perfectly normal, conscientious, well-adjusted schoolboys. The bullying that occurs in Danny Says leaves an indelible mark though, as the narrator, who had been terrorized to the point of tears and trauma, does not baulk at the violent retributive attack by Danny on Quinn. Indeed he appears to have fully adopted a brutal and merciless mentality in the story’s closing paragraphs, flaunting his triumph over Quinn publicly – Quinn who “shites it” from him now.
There’s a clear parallel with the transformation of the protagonist in Atheists – albeit a less vicious and cinematic one. Initially our young narrator has the capacity to forgive Ms Pine for her characteristic spite, as they share a moment of mutual affection and respect due to his performance in a class quiz.
That she follows this up by screaming in his face about having mud on his shoes erodes any youthful warmth he ever had, and much like Quinn’s attacks were to affect Danny’s ‘wee cousin’ in Danny Says, it leaves only anger and hatred behind:
His glee at seeing Pine cry later and his part in her torment forms the commitment to revenge and retribution that supplants his earlier compassion.
Other characters feel the same desire, the same instinct for vengeance, but fail at the decisive moment. Bruce in Bruce Springburn is in a constant crisis of masculinity:
Bruce doesn’t believe others view him as a man, as he is failing at one of the prerequisites of being a successful male: the making of money. His insecurities manifest themselves when he makes it into a position to exact revenge on Charlie by setting fire to his bedroom, but loses heart, blows out the match, and goes back to his barstool.
Despite Bruce’s retreat from action, he did at least have the spirit to feel a desire for retaliation against his oppressor. The narrator of Failure doesn’t even have that:
I drank tea and listened to music.”
No energy left to be vengeful, just grateful for the dripfeed of money from the state, he has submitted to apathy and regressed into a reclusive tea-drinker, having given up on hopes of either pursuing a worthwhile career or winning the affections of Nadia, the only girl to have shown any interest in him.
It is this form of inaction, inactivity, of stasis that appears to be one of the defining features of McMunnigall’s unemployed young males. Again and again there are instances of people sitting at home, waiting, doing nothing, having nowhere to go and feeling utterly adrift of society. When the narrator of Palpitation Blues concedes defeat to his neighbours’ blaring music, he settles down to suffer their tunes, and spends time detailing the view from his window, all the areas he knows. The route to Possil seems vaguely threatening to him, and the fear of such trouble may be the reason behind his apparent inability to go out and engage with the world.
The narrators of Failure and Masala Takeaway are both willing and able to venture out and live more active lives, but that doesn’t mean they progress in any meaningful way. Masala Takeaway sees Vince and his friend physically assault a delivery boy in what seems like a risky and futile crime, as the financial gain would certainly be minimal. Of course they will need to do this again soon if it’s their primary way of making money, which will inevitably see them caught and punished. Their situation is comic in that it is so clearly doomed to repetition and downfall.
In the story Failure, the protagonist considers submitting a truthful diary to the job centre, which would include daily summaries such as: “TUESDAY – Drank lager”. He has accepted stasis as a way of life, and although there are others in the community who don’t, the impression here is very much one of a ‘submerged population group’ where the circumstances and the system in which these characters have to exist do not provide attainable opportunities for either economic advancement or departure.
When the narrator of A Story begins by saying:
It sounds as hollow and futile as all of the bravado in Billy and Dixie (indeed, this narrator could easily be the same one from that story, being shown here at a different point in his life).
Stasis affects the characters in the ‘real-time’ experience of the story, and also in the more permanent context of their lives in some cases. This can be observed in the linked stories Marriage and The Visit, as we are with Daniel from when he’s a young man until he is in middle-age. Daniel conveys the closed nature of existence in this community by describing life almost like a conveyor-belt, where pre-determined landmarks are reached mechanically:
He later distills life there and the inability to deviate from its conventional fixed path by saying:
This weary resignation to disappointment, unemployment and stagnation, is expressed in less bleak terms by the narrator of Lift, who explains to his companion:
Whether the humour here is intentional or not, it serves to underline how disconnected from mainstream working life the young men of this community feel. For him, the prospect of moving ‘up’ in the world has became purely literal:
Much like in Marriage, the only aspirations that young folk can realistically have here are to reach the conveyor-belt of gaining an available flat in the area, then concentrating on getting through the day-to-day.
Another insightful comment on the nature of life there is found in the story Suicide:
It is more likely this statement implies that the area in its current state is more suited to vermin than human beings, rather than an alternative reading focused on the lovely bird’s-eye views from the tower blocks allied to the generous feeding habits of the locals.
This sentiment is developed more deeply in Billy and Dixie, where the narrator states:
Billy then takes this a step further:
Of course this is humorous, as both Billy and Dixie, and the listening narrator who accompanies them, are evidently as much a part of the social landscape here as anyone else, so Billy is removing everyone present from his classification of “decent folk”. It is interesting to consider the loathing of one’s self and one’s own community as an effect of the systematic inability to progress economically or socially (and in this case, geographically).
The insular life offered by this community also means that, in addition to an inability to progress out of that environment, there is a difficulty in relying on the regulation of external, official authorities. The society represented in Atheists appears to have moved towards a self-regulation and moral relativism that are to be expected in any community where there’s a collective feeling of alienation and dislocation from the prevailing centralized authority.
Danny’s mother in Danny Says comforts the narrator, insisting that he needn’t worry about the bullying anymore:
…He’s victimised in this scheme, folk don’t know the good that’s in him, they don’t see the kindness.”
The narrator’s mother is also present here, and neither she nor Danny’s mum consider speaking directly to Quinn’s parents, or to teachers or the police. Clearly this is the community morality, that justice is meted out when it’s deemed fair and deserved; the older generation being firmly in favour of this. Danny is capable of serious violence, but this seems to be taken as a necessary means of survival and doesn’t conflict at all with his perceived kindness.
The above excerpt touches on another means of self-regulation that can be observed in Atheists, that of gossip and reputation. Danny’s mum is comfortable with her son’s violence, but seems perturbed by the fact that “folk” must think (and speak) badly of him. The importance of rumour and conjecture is something that flows through the collection – it is what many seem to fear above all else. Frank Niven has no moral quandary over trying to fuck a girl in the back of a car while her pimp stands nearby, but he dreads being known as an “auld perv”.
We see the direct effect of having a blackened reputation in Hated, where the lead character is repeatedly driven away on sight. The reader is not told what he has done to be so reviled; the past is insignificant when set against his present state of being a permanently ostracized figure that will seemingly never be forgiven. Yet still he seeks re-integration and acceptance. Presumably because, like the many others already discussed, he does not have the economic capacity to be able to re-locate elsewhere.
Public shaming and judgement do occur in this community and should rightfully be feared, although there is one character who seems oblivious to that threat. William, the focalizer of Bolan, doesn’t just remain impervious to the possibility of being shamed, he responds by going on the offensive and challenging this entire value system:
Retaining William’s own humanity and empathy is more precious to him than adherence to the perceived community code, and is valued by him to the extent that he is not cowed by the threats of violence towards him, or the likelihood of his name being besmirched around the neighbourhood. It is probable that William later received an adult version of what Bish did to Ziad in the story Bish, where he spraypainted insults about Ziad all round the scheme so everyone could see them. William’s spirit is heroic, as he refuses to be crushed by any of the manifest troubles in his environment.
William is also somewhat of an anomaly among the residents in the sense that he still holds some belief in the value of the police force. In most of the stories here, there is a pervading loss of faith in the police as an institution. This feeling can be extended to authority and/or regulation as a concept, be it the police or the local authority in the guise of the job centre and its minions, or teachers and staff at the local schools, or the press media and their occasional interventions into the community.
The attitudes towards and treatment by the police are recurring plotlines that underscore the marginalized position that members of the ‘submerged population’ occupy. This example is from Darren Sullivan after the boy’s bike has been stolen:
It is easy to appreciate this embattled mentality after witnessing such incidents. Rather than diligently and respectfully dealing with the issue the police mock the family, and this disregard is surely why the community has no faith in their authority. Nobody would want to call for help just to be belittled in this manner, and although the immediate reactions of the father are not given here in the moment where the policeman laughs, this situation is sufficient in itself for us to intuit the frustration, the injustice, the impotence and the anger of feeling aware that he would not be behaving this way if the same crime had been committed in a different area to a different family.
This treatment is either replicated or discussed in various other stories. In Polis, two policemen mock and bully a young boy on his way home from school for no apparent reason. The piece demonstrates how attitudes towards the police in this community are inherited by generation, as the boy remembers how his dad told him to “never look the bastards in the eye”. Bruce of Bruce Springburn recounts how a policeman pissed in his guitar-case as an act of provocation when he was out busking one night. The speaker in Police And Thieves, as the title suggests, equates the police with low-level local criminals, calling them “THE LOWEST AE THE LOW”. He views both as the enemy, and although he is merely a disconnected voice of which we know nothing, he does express the siege mentality shared by many other characters.
The institutional disdain for the people of this community as felt from the police towards the adults and older generation is equally in evidence in the school system, directed from teachers to pupils. The sadistic behaviour of Ms Pine from Atheists has already been discussed, but the vicious prejudicial conduct on the basis of pupils’ backgrounds or social status is a particular characteristic that merits examination. It is not clear whether Pine is a callous middle-class snob or a self-loathing working-class social climber, but she takes a perverse delight in denigrating the children in a variety of ways:
What is interesting about these insults is that they are not direct attacks on the children themselves, such as reproach for a specific action like failing to submit homework. These comments are aimed at parents, therefore at the parenting in this community, with the implicit comment that this poor guidance is why the pupils, as respresentative of their community, are failing so badly to reach the standard set by Pine. Pine’s comments are not an assault on the immediate subject specifically, they attack the culture from which each person, in her purview, comes. They are designed to give the impression that the people of this community, pupils and parents, are ignoble wastes of her gracious effort. The pupils feel ashamed and inferior as a result of this sneering, which alienates them further from the authority of the school.
Pine and the school janitor Ayre go further later in the story:
That the staff of the school can be so openly contemptuous of the pupils en masse lays bare the divide between those in authority (the employed staff) and those without any form of authority (the children). It is a system predicated on this vertical abuse of power. Those higher up are free to abuse those below because the divide is both unalterable and unconquerable. Ms Pine is mentioned in Failure as sharing the stewardship of the Scripture Union with another teacher, MacArthur, a “vicious bastard who’d belt pupils for no reason”. It is again worth pausing to consider the effect that being a member of this group could have had for Tracy Irvine, the 87th Drug Death.
In the face of such contempt from teachers, who should be standard-bearers for authority and control in a society, the residents look elsewhere for the possibility of regulation and representation, but again find external agencies that have nothing but disregard for the interests of the ‘submerged population’.
The narrator of Lift describes this failure of representation:
He wants to see these things being brought to light in the media and addressed so that they can be improved, but the mainstream response appears exactly the same as Ms Pine’s – that the residents are no better than voiceless animals and so can suffer their own plight; a sub-culture not worthy of intervention.
Lift hints at the darker, wider social problem faced by such under-represented and marginalized groups, when the listener’s reply to the statement quoted above is:
This sentiment is what justifies the media’s refusal to provide proper coverage of the range of problems faced in this community, and highlights the damaging, detrimental modern mentality of only wishing to see a cosseted, sanitised (mimsical?) representation of reality when curled up in front of the flatscreen.
This speaker would doubtlessly prefer the feelgood fluff of the newspaper fragment, Pub Hero Saves The Day, a saccharine short piece about a local man who bravely fights off some youngsters trying to rob a pub. Rather than viewing this event as indicative of a culture where dejected young men are being drawn to such ways of gaining money (or excitement), the article refers to them as “thugs”, “villains”, and “hoodlums”, presenting them as nothing more than faceless forces of social malevolence. This trite, emotive language is all that the press can offer this community in terms of representation, using the incident for cheap sensationalized and sanitized page-filler nonsense, showing no interest whatsoever in investigating any of the underlying issues.
The endemic loss of faith in authority, regulation and representation in Atheists is seen in relation to a considerable range of different agencies and entities. The scenario faced by the narrator of Failure at the job centre brings to mind Stuart Kelly’s comment on “reality in all its surrealism”, as the character faces the Kafkaesque paradox of being told that his signing of a course of action is “voluntary”, but that refusal will see his benefits stopped. Only in this surreal world of Thatcherite logic does such a choice seem remotely voluntary.
In My Life of Crime, the character’s fears are not limited to the spectre of the police, as he worries about being “exploited by some dodgy middle-class lawyer”. Much like the pervasive mistrust of the police, lawyers are also despised because they represent a different yet equally rapacious mentality, coming into this community from outside with a prejudicial mindset, intent on exercising their position to the detriment of those they are supposed to help and serve with respect.
Baxter in the story of the same name has lost faith in this way of life entirely – indeed, in ‘society’ as a concept:
Baxter has taken the ultimate step of bottoming out of the ‘submerged population’. He is a courageous figure in that he doesn’t even want to be part of a society that relies on centralized authorities anymore. This could be interpreted as a valiant move towards a radical, independent, alternative means of existence, freed from a deferential place within a rigged hierarchy. Or, it could be perceived as a tragic response to a closed and callous society that reduces people to a form of archaic primitivism in order to try and survive with some dignity intact.
Baxter is one of the funniest characters of Atheists, and I feel that humour is one of the primary mechanisms that injects “lifeness” into the book. Characters like Baxter and like Billy of Billy and Dixie ring so fantastically true, with their ridiculous hyperbolic statements and stories which are obviously and wildly exaggerated – Baxter with his “degrees coming out ma arse” and Billy’s anecdotes about the police being too scared to patrol the streets anymore.
Billy’s speech is particularly endearing and amusing because the technique utilized here enables his voice to filter into the narrative without explicit set-up or framing:
This is a device used by some of the great ‘writers of voice’, such as Joyce and Faulkner, who of course relied heavily on ‘lifeness or ‘Affinitive Realism’ in order to make the reader feel that the prose was a living language and not purely a contrived, written account. This is a comparable example from the 1978 novel, Requiem for a Dream, by Hubert Selby Jr:
Here Tyrone is being conceived of in the third-person by a narrator, but the division between the two is fluid, the relationship and the proximity are so close, that after Tyrone’s direct speech is finished his consciousness suffuses the narrative briefly and he and the narrator speak with one voice (use of Tyrone’s characteristic phraseology like “long-assed night jim” and “pretty little ass”). This is a technique that I believe gives a narrative a sense of the heart and mind of a character, rather than only being permitted to observe a character from a fixed distance. How the narrator of Billy and Dixie treats Billy’s speech is similar. Rather than describing what Billy says, or paraphrasing, he gives this to us in Billy’s own words, his own voice, passing seamlessly into this from the narrative, and allowing the reader to feel the cadence and the rhythmic onrunning of Billy’s oft-repeated phrases about his desire to escape the area. It is via this technique that I gain a sense of Billy’s soul as a character, his desire and his determination to convince himself that this dream is a possibility, despite not actually spending much time with Billy in this very short story.
Voice, language and humour are so important in the ‘real’ aspect of McMunnigall’s version of ‘Affinitive Realism’. The behaviour of Derek’s dad in Atheists was as warm and recognizable to me as the hyperbolic Billy was. It’s not possible for me to read without smiling at the part where the boys are making tea, and Derek’s dad is getting drunk in the living-room and shouts through to them:
This is so perfectly observed, another character so well-drawn despite peripheral involvement in the story. These are not written lines from an author’s imagination, they are spoken lines from lives that are being ‘brought to different life’; James Wood’s essence of ‘lifeness’.
The juxtaposition of alcohol and tea in the above quotation is representative of what could be termed a peculiar ‘sub-theme’ of Atheists, where these two substances battle for the souls of the residents. The members of the community seem forever trapped between these twin poles, self-medicating with alcohol, anaestheticizing themselves with tea, desiring one, compulsively consuming the other.
Has there been an extended study of the effects of lashings of hot tea in prose-fiction? Thankfully there won’t be one here, even if this is uniquely fertile ground for such an examination.
As I am considering humour in the book here, I must note the appearances of tea during The Consumer, where Frank Niven repeatedly thinks of how to integrate his new lust for porn into his existing hot beverage schedule:
As curious and funny as this is, of course it is real and does humanize Frank. He is now ‘The Consumer’ and will soon become ‘The Punter’, but he remains an everyday person, a normal man of this community who likes his tea and is stuck in his routines.
There is such great and sensitive humour to be found throughout Atheists. Daniel in The Visit passes this distinctly existential comment in his mind, directed at Maureen’s daughter:
Or when the naïve young narrator of Paint is overcome with his infatuations in the pub:
To which the reply was:
This simple, humorous moment reveals so much, not just about our narrator but of young men in general (their ‘general shiteness’?). Too young, too naïve, too awestruck by appearance, too governed by impulse. What young man hasn’t had that experience of being dazzled by the surface-shimmer of a beautiful female, only to be grounded again by the realization that this feeling of wonder is not reciprocated, and that only his own superficiality is behind the momentary connection.
McMunnigall’s eye for detail and economy of phrase should now be well-established, but it must be appreciated that this is not always used for comedic or decorative purposes. Ultimately McMunnigall is exploring a society fraught with problems and insurmountable pitfalls for its residents. The most arresting image for me comes at the end of that great story, Billy and Dixie:
Again, the story of the lives of Billy and Dixie is being told by omission. In an existence where mobility (social/economic) is not viable, stagnation is an inevitability. Their spirits have not been extinguished, not totally, but their bodies have been reduced to a state of debilitation by the environment in which they must exist.
This is a foremost example of why this Afterword is entitled The Opposite of Mimsy. Stuart Kelly has identified this ‘Mimsical Realist’ trend whereby ‘contemporary Scottish literature’ has moved towards ‘speaking for not speaking out’ and for ‘spiralling into its own fantasies’, but I believe books such as Alan McMunnigall’s Atheists are an antidote to this. Its antithesis. I cannot think of a greater opposition to the twee and the whimsical than Billy and Dixie, these characters of heart and hope and substance, of human delusions and confusions. We see them shambling through life and finding themselves degrading with the years, as so many people are in the areas in which I have lived, on account of a social, economic and political system that I fear we acquiesce and justify further with each further thick new slice of flimsy published mimsy, while books of serious craft and depth like Atheists struggle for representation within this publishing climate.
To return briefly to Terence Brown’s Dubliners introduction that I quoted earlier – in that short piece, Brown chides a certain group of readers and academics for becoming too fixated on the identification of mythological references and parallels, and too focused on attempting to discern the symbolism in Joyce’s short stories. In Brown’s view, this is a form of misdirection which is effectively reducing these exquisite and timeless works of art to little more than one-dimensional historical allegories. I do believe that Stuart Kelly is unfortunately quite correct in perceiving a similar misdirection in Scottish literature in recent years, as I must admit to finding precious few new voices comparable to the great work that I quoted from earlier, from writers who emerged in the 1980s and 90s and produced those selected moments of Affinitive Realism that formed the foundations of a distinctly Scottish modern realist tradition. Atheists does not rely on mythological references or a heavy use of symbolism to get the academics excited, and it isn’t predicated on the trendy or the sentimental (ie, the mimsical); it is quite simply an evocation of life as experienced by a group of people in a particular place and time – which happens to be Glasgow. Whether McMunnigall can be said to have conveyed the howl and the warp of this social environment, as Updike believed Munch and Anderson did so wonderfully, is not a question I am able to answer, but I feel sure that if one day my friend lifts this book in Waterstone’s and begins to read, it will be very apparent that this is not another writer with nothing to say.
This book is ‘lifeness’, and it is here to be read in all of its true and natural surrealism. I hope dearly there are more of its kind to follow in an overdue renaissance of the Affinitive. ●