The Magazine

Bleak House

The view of mankind from Glasgow's lower depths.

Jan 26, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 18 • By BARTON SWAIM
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Kieron Smith, boy

by James Kelman

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,

432 pp., $26

Schoolchildren nowadays are told to keep journals and write whatever comes to mind--this in the interest of helping them to express themselves. But of course, as anybody knows who's ever actually raised a child, teaching children to express themselves is like teaching puppies to pee. That's all they do.

James Kelman's new novel turns that mundane reality into art. Kieron Smith, boy is the uninterrupted flow of a young boy's thoughts about the things that seem important to him: the joys of climbing drainpipes, the evils of older brothers, the best way to win a fight, the ethical and physical perils of stealing cigarettes from one's father.

The book is written entirely in the flat, repetitive, and sometimes self-contradictory sentences of a boy from the ages of about 7 to 11. This, together with the young narrator's ability to write in broad Scottish dialect when he chooses--the setting is 1960s Glasgow--makes the novel a challenge to read. But it is a remarkable work of fiction, and worth the effort. Kelman is well known for his ability to reproduce the language of working-class Scots without making his prose unreadable to a non-Scottish audience. Here he also captures the internal world of boyhood, with its petty grievances, inarticulate longings, and dark speculations.

This was Glasgow when it still reflected the rivalries of Northern Ireland, and the meaning of religious identities--the difference between "papes" and "proddies"--preoccupies Kieron.

They [the Catholic boys] could not pass our school either. We had stones to pelt them so ha ha and we shouted at them. Catholic cats eat the rats. They shouted at us. Proddy dogs eat the frogs.

They went down the main road then round by our street but sometimes if it was ones ye knew, if they stayed in your street and maybe if ye played with them and ye just passed and saw them looking, so ye made it a secret wee look just if it was a secret wee hullo or if ye kidded on ye did not see them, they did that too. When ye came out to play at nighttime it was okay and ye were just pals.

The book's most powerful scenes are those in which the boy is listening without fully understanding what he's listening to. But listening he is: "Everything ye say, he is taking notes," remarks his grandfather after realizing the boy has heard a conversation not intended for his little ears. "That is weans for ye." Indeed Kieron, like his creator, is an excellent listener; he relays the aural texture of his world in ways both childlike and lifelike.

I liked noises and listening just to what it was if it was outside, motor cars or what, if it was music from through the wall or big boys shouting in the street or maybe just heels walking, oh that is a woman, cullick cullick, cohhhhh, cullick cullick.

James Kelman, like virtually all Scottish writers over the last century, is a man of the left. Indeed, he calls himself an "anti-parliamentarian" and has refused to vote for most of his life, so committed is he to the revolution. But he is more artist than political crank, whatever his extracurricular commentaries lead one to believe. Although, like the other Scottish writers with whom he is associated--Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochhead--he espouses a politics that equates Scottish nationalism with militant egalitarianism (both, not coincidentally, are anti-English), Kelman doesn't use his fiction to trumpet his politics. Maybe it's there, but you have to look hard for it.

Kelman's chief crotchet has to do with language. He refuses to write in what he likes to call, with an equal measure of sanctimony and naïveté, "the 'received' language of the ruling class." His protagonists neither know nor care about the norms of written English. Kelman, though not himself a university graduate, has evidently read or absorbed enough Foucault to believe that grammatical and syntactical rules are manifestations of political oppression. Written standards of English are a form of--to use the academic jargon--cultural imperialism.

(Of course, Kelman is quite happy to use standard punctuation, word order, and spelling; otherwise his books wouldn't sell. There's a line in his novel You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free [2004] in which the protagonist, an anarchist, explains that he's "opposed to authority on principle. Mind you, I'll negotiate on particulars." Just so.)

Language is a recurring theme in Kieron Smith, but there's no trace of the Foucauldian balderdash Kelman likes to put forward in interviews and essays. Kieron's mother is always harping on the boy about speaking proper English. "She did not like me saying aye, and if I said maw, maw was awful and just horrible, she hated it." But his father uses the commoner diction and resents his eldest son, Matt, for "talking nice." In none of this, however, is there a hint of Kelman's ludicrous theory about the hegemony of standard English; indeed Catherine, Kieron's proper-speaking mother, is among the few characters in this bleak novel capable of loving.

One of several things that makes Kieron Smith both a gentler and a more intellectually engaging work than Kelman's previous novels is its handling of profanity. Kelman's novels aren't for the delicate, replete as they are with four-letter words and other evidence of urban Scotland's underbelly. Kelman's is a genuine talent, but his ultra-realist sensibility drives him to fetishize the offensive as somehow truer or more authentic--his Booker-winning novel How Late It Was, How Late (1994), the internal monologue of a hoodlum blinded in a drunken brawl, is to my mind unreadable.

The wee protagonist of Kieron Smith, by contrast, makes a conscious decision not to use "swear words." He even renders the middle letters of indecorous words with asterisks; bloody becomes b****y, shite becomes s***e. Kieron's pals find his decision annoying and pester him about it mercilessly. He has regrets--"I wished I had not started not swearing"--but when told to say a series of swear words, he refuses.

Why does he stop swearing? Kieron himself doesn't seem to know. "No because of nothing," he explains. It seems plain, though, that at some level the boy senses the coercive nature of the hard profanity used by his peers--a social habit in which the f-word, used incessantly, becomes a way to express opposition or hostility to those one perceives to be privileged or "posh," stultifying the minds of young people who want to seem tough and disaffected. (I know a postman in Edinburgh, an evangelical Christian, whose "ministry," as he once explained to me, consists in an attempt to persuade his coworkers to clean up their language.)

Near the end of the novel Kieron forgoes the use of asterisks, and begins using "swear words" the same as his pals. Has he finally found his voice and become at ease with his own identity? Or has he conformed to a cultural imperialism of another kind? Kelman--to his credit as a novelist--doesn't tell us the answer.

Barton Swaim is the author of a forthcoming book on 19th-century Scottish literary critics.