BOOK REVIEW / Lanark man short on double vision: 'Ten Tales Tall and True' - Alasdair Gray: Bloomsbury, 15.99 pounds

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AMONG the paraphernalia (the ornamental drawings, the cod review snippets and all) that bedecked Alasdair Gray's first solo collection, Unlikely Stories, Mostly (1983), there lurked an erratum slip which proclaimed: 'This slip has been inserted by mistake'. So you'd have to be an uncommonly trusting soul to open his latest gathering, Ten Tales Tall and True, and not entertain the suspicion that it will proceed to offer, by rum definition, rather more than is bargained for.

Gray's yarn-spinning is not confined to the name or the stories. Take the longish footnote (roughly half the length of the tale) that accompanies the diptych-like 'A Fictional Exit'. There, with a brazen mix of the ingenious and the disingenuous, the author tries to castigate propaganda as 'a low form of art' at the same time as availing himself, for propaganda purposes, of a footnote's special privileges. Commenting on the second part of the story, in which policemen break in on an innocent blind man, knock him down and, on learning of their error, charge him with assault, the note coolly suggests that 'if you dislike such mistakes, vote into power a radical party which will restore the ancient safeguards'. More a low trick than a low form of art.

But then the story itself has the air of a problem teasingly evaded. Gray's art works best when, as in the phantasmagoric treatment of Glasgow in Lanark, the fantastical side of his imagination is brought into a testing, fruitful relation with his social-realist inclinations. 'Fictional Exits' simply lays these discrepant modes out side by side and in a travestied condition. The transforming power of imagination is represented by a twee, frictionless anecdote about a prisoner who makes a wall- sketch of his cell block door, turns the pretend key and walks out. A countervailing sense of the intractabilities of oppression is conveyed in the true story of the blind man, though enforced by sledgehammer ironies which feign sympathy with the police and disappointment with the blind man for not exercising the imagination that lets you 'see in the dark'. No enlightening linkage between these two perspectives is on offer.

It may be presented in the same tongue-in- cheek spirit as the punning design involving 10 animal tails that surrounds it on the back of the jacket, but Gray's jaunty classification of the contents by genre - 'Social Realism, Sexual Comedy, Science Fiction, Satire' - emerges as a fairly straight pointer to the simplified, separated-out feel of many of the pieces. These range from an unhurried, canny look at the factors that turn a young Fifties navvy into a 'boss's man' to the futuristic nightmare of a rail service so entirely at the mercy of external computers and overweening safety devices that train passengers are powerless in the event of catastrophic mischeduling.

As you'd expect from a writer as talented as Gray, there are enough idiosyncratic pleasures knocking around to make the book well worth reading. But its achievements recede if we remember that Poor Things, his recent award- winning novel, was originally conceived as a story for this collection. With its hybrid Victorian heroine (a man-made assemblage with an implanted foetus-brain; an erotic fantastical creation that develops a keen sense of social responsibility), the earlier book achieves the weird double-purchase on the world that is one of Gray's major strengths. It's precisely that virtue that is lacking in these sharp but mostly monocular tales.

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