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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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.