Last year, in a review of Cathy McSporran’s novel Cold City for Gutter magazine, I suggested that, “There are just not enough great Glasgow novels”. I am going to have to retract that, at least partially, as recently there have been some really interesting and innovative novels based in Glasgow. In the last 8 months, as well as Cold City, there has been Jane Alexander’s The Last Treasure Hunt, Graham Lironi’s Oh Marina Girl, Douglas Lindsay’s The Legend of Barney Thompson (now a major movie, folks) and part of Karen Campbell’s Rise. To those you can also add Neil D. A. Stewart’s The Glasgow Coma Scale, a novel which, like all of the above, avoids the common clichés which surround, and for some still define, the city.
Alasdair Gray famously stated in Lanark, with reference to Glasgow, that, “..if a city hasn’t been used by an artist, not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.” Gray and his contemporaries James Kelman, Liz Lochhead, Jeff Torrington, Agnes Owens, and later on others such as Louise Welsh, Zoe Strachan, A.L. Kennedy and Ewan Morrison, all used the city well and perhaps we are now seeing their influence coming to fruition. Whatever the reason it seems that how some writers imagine, and re-imagine, Glasgow is no longer the problem it was.
Stewart’s Glasgow will be immediately recognisable to those who know the streets, but, as with Gray’s Lanark or Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late, he uses it almost as another character rather than as shorthand for desperation and damage. In The Glasgow Coma Scale, the city helps shape the events which unfold as much as it shapes the novel’s characters. People and place are inextricably linked, with its offices, pubs, cafes, museums and art galleries being not simply settings for events, but places which have tangible effects on those who live there. Stewart uses the city’s light, language, weather, architecture and general ambiance as a palate which helps set the scene and create mood.
The central characters are Lynne and Angus. Lynne discovers Angus homeless and begging on Sauchiehall Street. The two knew each other in their previous lives where he was her art school tutor, and she was in awe of his talent and apparent wisdom. She convinces herself that she owes him support and takes him in to her flat. Tellingly she is at a time of crisis in her own life, and needs Angus as much, and perhaps more, than he needs her. He becomes her ‘project’, but he is a reluctant subject, and their relationship soon becomes one of self and mutual loathing as they come to resent each other for reasons they do not quite understand.
At first I wanted to know more detail about their previous lives, particularly how Angus had come to where he was, but as I read on I realised that who they were matters little. The book is about where they are now, and their interdependent yet destructive relationship. There is a claustrophobic feel to the novel as the two come to suffocate each other, yet need each other and in many ways begin to define each other.
Stewart has managed to convey how two people can stay in a relationship that appears to bring them nothing but pain, somehow justifying to themselves that there is no other choice, and it is painful to witness. There is a brutal honesty about their lack of honesty. It’s only when Angus and Lynne’s behaviour becomes more extreme and begins to effect other people that they begin to realise things must change. However, getting out is often more difficult than getting in.
While not always an easy read, there is enough black humour and empathy in Stewart’s writing to ensure you have to see how things play out. I mentioned Karen Campbell at the top of the page, and The Glasgow Coma Scale examines human nature in a similar manner to her previous novel, This Is Where I Am. Both books look at the contradictions behind apparently selfless actions, and the struggle to do ‘the right thing’. They ask difficult questions about what drives one person to help another, and whether a relationship where there is an element of charity, whatever form that takes, is doomed from the beginning.
The Glasgow Coma Scale leaves you feeling uneasy, and in my experience that’s never a bad thing for a novel to do. That feeling makes you ask yourself what it is about what you’ve read that makes you feel this way; what it is which you recognise but wish you didn’t. Or perhaps that’s just me. Somehow, I doubt it.
Here’s the audio version of the review, if you prefer it that way…