Of all his writing, James Kelman's novels tend to get the lion's share of the attention, whether it's the Booker Prize-winning How Late it Was, How Late in 1994 or, more recently, Kieron Smith, Boy, which won just about every prize going in Scotland and saw the author nominated for the Man Booker International Prize. But for this reviewer's money, he's a more interesting writer of short stories. Kelman's repetitive internal monologues and famous aversion to literary conventions such as plot sometimes make reading his novels seem like a war of attrition, the author daring you to get to the end despite all he throws at you.
In the shorter form, Kelman seems to relax a little. He is certainly more experimental, as this latest collection shows, and he's also a lot funnier. As well as being a keen observer of society's underclasses and disenfranchised, Kelman also has a great eye for the absurdity of everyday life, something which comes to the fore in this collection.
Kelman is as precise a user of language as you'll read anywhere. Not a single sentence here is flabby or cluttered. Or rather, if it is flabby or cluttered, it's deliberately so. But in the 19 stories here, there is nothing resembling a traditional plot. Instead, we get a number of streams of consciousness, invariably from male, predominantly working-class narrators. These narrators dwell on issues of class, politics, gender divisions and relationships in a way which is perceptive and revealing, but ultimately becomes a little wearing. The finest stories here are the ones that vary a little from the pattern.
In the title story, we get an internal monologue concerning class and politics, but at least it's from the point of view of a younger character – a student returning home by ' bus to his family in Glasgow after an eye- opening term spent at an English university. This is the book's most charming narrative, and can even be read as an extension of Kieron Smith, Boy, dealing with the very ideas of class and betterment which that novel tackled.
However, even this story highlights a problem with Kelman's work in the 21st century. The story reads as if it's set in the early 1970s – which it may well be because, as in all of the author's writing, there are no cultural signifiers to tell the reader when the story is set. It certainly doesn't read like the concerns of a young man in the new millennium. Some would argue that it's this timelessness which gives Kelman's work his power. A less charitable view would be that the author is simply stuck in a time warp and has failed to address the modern age at all.
The funniest stories in If it is Your Life are the most engaging. "Pieces of Shit Do Not Have the Power to Speak", which sees its narrator imprisoned on an island, is a piece of high comic writing which manages to feature the word "gadzooks" as well as the stand-alone paragraph: "The sex lives of coconuts." Two other experimental pieces, "Our Times" and "On Becoming a Reader", look at the world afresh while also providing a few laughs.
Such successes aside, If it is Your Life is dominated by typical Kelman-esque tales, with typical Kelman-esque characters thinking typical Kelman-esque thoughts. His impeccable command of language continues to make him an easy writer to admire, but, it has to be said, he is a hard one to love.Reuse content