Lanark 1982
an unofficial Alasdair Gray website

Poor Things (1992)
<Buy this book>

Poor Things was a second breakthrough work for Gray. Certainly he was admired, mainly by other writers and artists, but he was no name so to speak. Lanark seemed to have been and gone and many thought he had failed to follow it up, perhaps blown his greatness in one fantastic splurge. His ability to coerce publishers of the size of Jonathan Cape to produce his books in the way he demanded seemed to have more to do with his talent and force of personality than high sales. But Poor Things was a seller (although, being a literary novel, it wasn't going to trouble Stephen King, Jackie Collins or Terry Pratchett). And also a prize-winner. It won the Whitbread award for novel of the year and the Guardian Book of the Year, it was also a New York Times Notable Book of the Year..

But why should it be this novel that captured the imagination? Perhaps it was the backing of Bloomsbury Publishing, a small publishing house then, in the days before Harry Potter, and willing to put their money behind marketing more difficult works when they felt it was merited. Perhaps it was the full-colour painted cover, the first on one of Gray's novels. Perhaps it was the punning use of illustrations from Gray's Anatomy, and more especially the less-than-subtle placing of full-page anatomical drawings of male and female genitalia at the opening of Wedderburn's and Bella's letters respectively. Whatever, the attention was no less than Gray had deserved by this time and was luckily lavished on one of his very best books.

Gray had early said that he had given up writing fiction (he has said this on at least three occasions during his career, most recently after the Book of Prefaces was published - let's hope that it is as true this time as it has been in the past). Something Leather had been less than rapturously received, by critics and public (perhaps deservedly so, for it is one of his weakest full-length works) and he intended to devote himself to The Book of Prefaces and illustrating the works of others. But he needed money to continue work on his prefaces book and gave Bloomsbury Poor Things to tide them over. God bless him for it.

So what is it? Why is it so special? For a start it is full of games, as light-hearted a Gray book as anything since Unlikely Stories, Mostly, despite its serious themes. It pretends to be an autobiography found in a box of legal papers being destroyed by a Glasgow law firm. The curators of Glasgow's People's Palace passed it to Gray, for editing and publication, believing it to be a minor masterpiece and Gray pieced together the life through a work of detection. Of course none of this is actually true, but Gray's use of learned notes, illustrations, and both introductory and secondary material is pretty convincing.

The tale itself is the Dr Frankenstein tale transplanted to Victorian Glasgow. A young student doctor, Archibald McCandless, becomes infatuated with an older, wilder eccentric student called Godwin Baxter (or just 'God' to his friends). Baxter finds the body of a drowned woman, heavily pregnant and victim of suicide. He cannot save the woman, so he transplants the brain of the baby into the body of the adult and resucitates her. He then has to care for a woman with the mind of a child. When McCandless visits, he falls deeply in love with the woman, who is named Bella and who is wild, willful, sexually precocious and intellectually inquisitive to the point of pathology. This is the topic of the main autobiography, but it is followed by a letter from Bella herself to her future granchildren, explaining to them not to believe their late father's ravings. Eventually, of course, it is for the reader to decide which to believe. I have a letter from Gray, which he wrote in reply to a question I had asked about which account he believed himself. He said, in a typical author sidestep, that while he was writing McCandless' account he believed that, and he believed Bella's while he was writing hers, but added that taking into account current medical practices, Bella's was probably the more likely.

Alasdair Gray's books are sometimes difficult to get hold of. Where they are available, I have included links below to the amazon sites in the UK and the USA. Where a record is on their database, they will usually include links to used-book sellers who can offer the title, even if it is not available direct from amazon themselves.

<Buy from>
Paperback also available.

<Buy from>
Paperback also available.

Alternatively, you can try emailing Morag McAlpine, who can send you a list of available titles. She usually has a variety of out-of-print books, often signed, and also a selection of prints of Gray's artwork, also signed.