The Ends of Our Tethers by Alasdair Gray
After a seven year break, Glaswegian writer Alasdair Gray, much feted for the magnificent Lanark, returned to fiction with this compact collection of darkly experimental tales, subtitled Thirteen Sorry Stories. Will Self has referred to Gray as “perhaps the greatest living writer in Britain today” and this selection of short fiction, essays and asides provides an occasional glimpse of this brilliance.
These are stories about aging, and about deterioration, of bodies and of marriages. Familiar but alien, they are shot through with black humour, Gray’s writing is inquisitive and experimental and the book is peppered with Gray’s own illustrations. In Job’s Skin Game a man, who has recently lost his sons in the September 11th attacks and much of his money to the dot com crisis, develops an unusual skin condition. His body rebels, his skin flakes and peels. In No Bluebeard, the longest story in the collection, two eccentric loners meet, a thrice divorced man and a disturbed young woman with a cut glass accent and a tendency to overuse certain expletives. As we learn more about the emotional, needy Tilda we also acquire the details of his of previous three marriages, from the initial flush of romance to the bitterness of divorce.
Opening tale Big Pockets with Buttoned Flaps features a bizarre liaison between a group of youths and an older man who is fixated with a particular item of their clothing. Wellbeing is a bleak, dystopian vision of a world where writers roam homeless and the old are fodder for marauding street gangs. Property and Pillow Talk are barely snippets of stories, two brief black episodes of realisation, where a husband finds out his wife wants him to leave her and two young men discover their ideas of land and freedom are not universal.
Gray does not restrict himself to fiction. In Fifteenth February 2003 he writes warmly about Glasgow’s Stop the War demonstration, and the feelings, echoed in the London march and in so many major cities around the world, of unity and purpose and the tiny thread of hope that perhaps someone would take notice. Gray also throws in a couple of humorous diversions, a Moral Philosophy Exam and some Creative Writing Exercises. These are funny but rather thin and curmudgeonly, they feel like padding.
Gray is a very socially aware writer; his stories raise questions and challenge expectations. The tales in this collection frequently depict the clash of young people with the old; between people from different class backgrounds. They are rooted in the familiar but capable of branching off into weirder, darker worlds. Dotted with Gray’s grinning gargoyles, The Ends of Our Tethers is, for the most part, an all-too-short collection of compelling prose.