It is widely accepted that the arts and culture have never been as important in people’s lives as they are at the moment. Whether it’s the constant comfort of a favourite album, binge-watching TV series old and new, joining others online to watch pre-recorded festivals or live performances streamed from artists’ homes, or simply losing yourself in books, the need for escape to other worlds and mental spaces has never been as profound. The return of Alan Bissett to writing prose would always be welcome, but surely never more so than now.
Bissett’s last novel was 2011’s Pack Men (the SWH! review of which you can still read here), although he wasn’t exactly at rest in the 10 years that have passed. He’s been working widely in the theatre – both writing and performing – was on the front-line of the Scottish Independence movement in the run up to the 2014 referendum, turned his hand to TV presenting, and a whole lot more. Be sure to listen to the forthcoming SWH! podcast with Alan for the full story.
His latest book is Lazy Susan, which instantly reminds regular readers that this is a writer to be treasured. From the first chapter you feel the presence of an old friend, one who has all the best lines and the final word. There’s always been an energy to Bissett’s writing, an exuberance and spirit which will not be denied. It shines through in his characters and the language, and is given full expression with this book.
It feels as if his work in the theatre has had a strong influence on his writing this time round. You can easily imagine Lazy Susan adapted for the stage, and, because he has such a distinctive voice (not only as a writer but as a performer), you can hear Susie’s words as he would speak them, or imagines them being spoken by others. The shorter form of the novella also has a positive effect on the writing, with every phrase, and the thoughts behind them, counting. It not only gives events pace, but reflects how the narrator lives their life.
This time around, the central character is Susan Quinn Martin, AKA Susie Q, who is described as “a working class Holly Golightly for the influencer generation”, and who immediately takes her place alongside ‘Alvin Allison’ (from Boyracers and Pack Men), ‘Adam Spark’ (The Incredible Adam Spark), ‘Charlie Bain’ (Death of a Ladies Man) and ‘Moira Bell’ (The Moira Monologues) as unforgettable Alan Bissett creations. Few writers manage to capture not just how we speak to each other but how we talk to ourselves as he does, managing to make every voice unique yet relatable, and always fiercely individual.
Susie lives her life online, making new friends and updating complete strangers, determined to present her best self, and different selves, to who she sees as different audiences. It’s what we all do, but amplified through the peculiar prism of social media. We meet her in her early 20s worried about being seen in the right places, in the right gear – to just be seen, and determined not to miss out, a reminder that there are no new stories, only new ways of telling them. Events take place over a 48-hour period when Susie is hoping life will be sweet. It could be the best of times, it could be the worst of times – it in no small part depends on you. This asks questions about the nature of storytelling, and the unwritten contract between author and reader.
Lazy Susan may look like a slight return – a novella of only 152 pages – but in this case looks are decidedly deceptive. The structure of the book offers multiple readings, in a manner similar to the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure Books’ that were hugely popular in the 1980s in particular. At the end of most chapters readers have a choice as to what happens next, the question always framed as, “If you…” placing the reader at the heart of the action, and also in part responsible for what unfolds. It works well as a psychological test as to your own personality, and, if you’re like me, you will read through the book more than once to see how things would pan out otherwise. Rarely has a book reflected the reader back at themselves more honestly.
Lazy Susan leaves readers wanting more and it’s to be hoped working on this book has whetted Bissett’s appetite for a more permanent return to writing fiction. However, even if that’s not the case, he has once again proved to be one of the most inventive and thoroughly entertaining writers around. If you have never read Alan Bissett then Lazy Susan is a great place to start, but do go back to those other novels mentioned above. These days there really is no excuse not to, and you might just discover your new favourite writer. For the rest of us it’s a warm and welcome return.
You can buy a signed copy from alanbissett.com.