A LEAN THIRD by James Kelman

Tangarine Press ISBN 978-0-9573385-1-7 £30 Numbered & Signed £50 Lettered & Signed.

reviewed by S. Kadison


The eighteen stories collected here were first published alongside tales by Alasdair Gray and Agnes Owens. Kelman’s Afterword recounts the fate of that collection, and much else. This is one of Michael Curran’s beautifully produced publications, handmade, printed on high quality paper. A collectors’ item for that reason alone; much more so, of course, being an original Kelman.  

Kelman suffers perhaps, in the same way as Beckett and Joyce, by not being recognised for his humour. These stories are narrated by people at the bottom or on the periphery. The style is plain. Perhaps that inclines readers to expect grimness. Kelman is, in fact, a very funny writer. His angle of narration is amusing. It comes from being unable to take contemporary reality, or at least that inhabited by his narrators, entirely seriously. He gives it slant, as Emily Dickinson advised, but not merely oblique; he is disillusioned before he writes a word. His narrators have to deal with problems most people never think of: whether to wear socks or put up with shoes filled with sweat; whether not to take a bath in order to hang  onto the grimy skin that might preserve a bit of heat. They worry about these things like the middle-classes worry about a good school for Connor and Evie or whether to change the car every two or three years. The mismatch is very droll. Perhaps the comfortable assume that those who’ve fallen off the ladder lack their nice distinctions, don’t make refined choices, are at the bottom exactly because they lack the capacity; Kelman humanizes the outcasts. They are exactly like us, except they have no or little money or earn their livings in low-level jobs. This is no small achievement. It requires not only great literary originality but also astute political, social and psychological thinking. The glib approach is sentimental special pleading (Dickens is sometimes guilty), but Kelman doesn’t want his readers to pity his characters, he wants them to recognize themselves in them. Our culture is prone to look down on those with little, either disdainfully or with pity (pity can, of course, be beneficial) and this grants us a sense of superiority. These stories aren’t written from a downwards perspective. They are narrated in the first person, perhaps a deliberate avoidance of the problem of twin voices, narrator and character. They are, as it were, straight from the losers’ mouths. 

A Nightboilerman’s Notes is one of those rare pieces set in the workplace. It ends with the words, I just get on and do the job, enjoying its various aspects. The story is a slow accumulation of details : It takes 4 bogey loads to replenish the bunker. I could manage it with 3 but the incline up into the factory is too steep to push the bogey comfortably if fully laden. There isn’t much literature in English which includes such descriptions. Pushing bogeys full of coal is infra dig. One the one hand, then, this is a way of dignifying labour, on the other it’s an accurate depiction of the nature of much work. Adam Smith would recognize the potentially humiliating tenor. Yet the narrator gets on with it. Is this Kelman saying work has to be endured or that people have no alternative ? What emerges is a Kafkaesque sense of powers at work which must be obeyed and the reduction of life to a set of gestures which fit a requirement whose precise nature you can never be sure of. And it’s funny. The narrator is laconic. He neither fully accepts nor rebels. The final vague enjoying its various aspects is beautifully ironic and understated: the job’s aspects are few and none is obviously enjoyable.  

The narrator of Extra Cup is a sweeperup who doesn’t make it. In a culture of aspiration, that’s pretty severe. This is employment viewed from the bristles up. Employment is normally treated with reverence; employers, after all, are the modern equivalent of feudal lords. This is an irreverent glance at the demeaning stupidity of much employment. The customary bureaucracy and risible hierarchy are in evidence and gently mocked. The narrator can stick it only for a day. He lies about having to leave his current home in order to get his pay. It’s hard not to feel he’s escaped with his dignity, as we all would if we had the good sense to refuse employment. . The style is as straightforward as a brush, just the opposite of that pompous, top-down narration typical of McEwan and others of his ilk. The story is written beneath a set of assumptions – you should be ambitious at work, please your employer, find your identity in what the economy demands of you – which makes it unobtrusively subversive. Men with brushes aren’t usually thought of as a good subject for great literature and certainly not as narrators of their own tales. 

Busted Scotch is a parable about a Scotsman down on his luck at the blackjack table. There is a suggestion of moral collapse in this story: society as a talent contest or casino. Take your pick. Entertainment or gambling are near desperate ways of getting by. There’s a second appearance of gambling in A Betting Shop To The Rear Of Shaftesbury Avenue. It operates as a metaphor for a culture based on bitter chance where hope has been replaced by the National Lottery. No one buys a ticket hoping someone else will win. It is atomisation pushed to its limit. It could be you, but it won’t be. Gambling encapsulates the cruelty of our culture’s glib game of winners and losers. Thus, the narrator of the same is here again asks: “What has happened to all my dreams is what I would like to know.” A story of bafflement. Once again, Kelman assimilates success failure: they are conjoined in being inexplicable to those who suffer or enjoy them. In a culture where chance is permitted to decide people’s fates, everyone is baffled, and the sameness which is the bane of this narrator’s experience is not radically different from the predictable boredom of most lives.  

The Glenchecked Effort raises an interesting literary question: the relation of the narrator to the implied author (that organizing consciousness created in the writing). Much as I disdain French deconstructionist and structuralist twaddle, this does touch off Barthes’ question re Flaubert: Qui parle? The language is deliberately high-falutin’ and here and there Ortonesque: “with a view to securing a light post” feels exactly like Orton’s mockery of polite cliché behind which lurks so much viciousness and misery. Perhaps this story’s reticent moral is that education is no necessary defence against destitution or descent into criminality  

There is great compression in the writing. In Getting There, the narrator succeeds in securing bed and breakfast, takes a bath and comments: 

“The desire for new suiting, never seen nor heard of outside of books by bad authors; the freshly-pressed linen underwear and silk pyjamas, the valet to disrobe one, the smoking jacket velvet Jobson yes, hock shall do ably with old cheese & water biscuits and fly invitations to the chambermaid.” 

The writers he is referring to are obvious and in this one short sentence their deleterious influence is spiked.  

The narrator of The City Slicker & The Barmaid says, after recounting managing to get a tent on a farm and having to perform menial chores: 

“I also received cash for these tasks.” 

Not just a tied tenant but a wage labourer. Kelman’s dead-pan manner strips these relations of their customary mystifications. “..I can never sleep wearing socks even if I had any…” Kelman reveals, over and over, the oddity of folk without thoughtless essentials in a culture of fabulous wealth. This story contains the one reference to sex: the narrator tries his luck with the barmaid for fear of insulting the locals by not doing. Kelman has no illusions about intimacy being spared the machinations of power. His writing is the contrary of the kind much in demand. Stories are the way we make sense of ourselves. Science is good at how the planets move, covalent bonding, how species got here, why you can’t learn without a hippocampus or two, but it’s hopeless at finding out the truth of how we relate to ourselves and one another. Stories do, which is why people love them. It’s why they watch Coronation St and listen to The Archers. The audiences for those programmes shouldn’t be sneered at. They want stories they can understand. Our culture lets them down. Stories are dangerous. The powerful don’t have to worry about Einstein or Dirac. No one reads them as they are impossibly difficult. The masses don’t read theory or history. They read stories. That’s why tight control is exerted. You won’t find Lean Tales in Waterstones.  

Kelman’s literary genius is well-recognised. Genius is rare but the rarest is moral genius. Many a literary genius has been capable of moral idiocy: Shaw wishing for a “lethal chamber” for the useless; Woolf hoping the disabled could be done away with; Wells longing for the poor to be swept from the face of the earth; Pound enthusing for fascism and his friend Tom letting fall casual anti-Semitism. Moral genius is, of course, astringent. There are hints of that astringency here. Perhaps Kelman is more than just a literary genius.