McLean places the long, dark journey of Hours of Darkness (which feels like it could have been written by Camus or Dostoyevsky) next to a genuinely funny comic piece, Quality Control; the brief third-person existential story Dying and Being Alive then moves back into the economic realism of the first-person in Loaves and Fishes, Nah. The intensely visceral and insular After Not Eating for a Couple of Days I Got my Hands on Some Liver leads on to the detached eloquence of Thistle Story. Duncan McLean has a diverse skillset as a writer, and getting to know this book becomes an education into many different aspects of the craft.
Managing dialogue in a group conversation is a difficult thing to do, technically-speaking, but I think McLean does it superbly in more than one story here (The Druids Shite It, Fail to Show and Bod is Dead especially). He uses detail beautifully in the story Tongue, but the depictions are spare and memorable; the writing never lapses into slow, needless description. I think the characterization in Shoebox is superb, especially of the female protagonist. McLean reveals her through certain statements and behaviours without ever resorting to the narrator having to tell you anything about her directly. The structure and movement of Lucky to be Alive was interesting and instructive for me – a little backstory at the beginning, the stages within the story giving a good sense of what the characters’ lives/routines are like, and then the brilliant, abrupt shift near the end.
I hadn’t been writing long when I realized that voice and restraint were two things that are crucial for good prose fiction, because I, like most new writers, was far too concerned with explication and “good” (ie: grammatically correct, florid) writing early on. I found Headnip to be an excellent example of a convincing, engaging, but understated narrative voice which engenders sympathy without being heavy-handed or intrusive, and comments on objects and feelings without being over-explanatory or indulgent. Another aspect I’ve struggled with at times is how to allow humour to infuse itself into fiction, and I think After Guthrie’s is a masterclass in how this can be achieved without setting up elaborate, wacky capers or zany characters. It’s about solipsism, about relationships, it makes me think of all the husbands and wives who spent their lives shouting and fighting in the scheme where I grew up, of how complex and funny those unions can be.
I love this book because it gives so much in terms of technical excellence, but never loses its heart; it is always dark and humorous, and very real. ●