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Writers at Play

The Fall of Kelvin Walker: A Fable of the Sixties

by Alasdair Gray
George Braziller, 144 pp., $14.95

There are allegorical tales, usually rather short, that resemble instant powders or concentrates: if you add water, in the shape of extra incidents and ancillary characters, you have a decent novel of a standard kind. The Fall of Kelvin Walker isn’t one of these: if you diluted it, you would end with a lumpy gruel.

Subtitled “A Fable of the Sixties,” it is obviously akin to Voltaire’s Candide in respects both basic and superficial. Young Kelvin leaves his native town of Glaik, known for the manufacture of fish glue and sweaters and for the processing of cheese, to make his fortune, or, more accurately, to find his destiny, in London, the glamorous and prosperous city (as he sees it) of the 1960s. His father is a fundamentalist Christian, or “more than a Christian,” being session clerk of the John Knox Street Free Seceders Presbyterian Church of Scotland. (The intricacies of Scottish religion are perplexing even to many Scots, so we are informed that a session clerk is chairman of the congregational committee empowered to correct the minister should his preaching deviate from true doctrine.) Freeing himself from paternal oppression, Kelvin—the name is said to derive from a Scottish river, though my guess is that Calvinist associations are prepotent—has embraced the philosophy of “the sublime” Colonel Ingersol, the nineteenth-century American opponent of Christianity, and subsequently the more sweeping example of Nietzsche. Indeed, Kelvin sees himself as the New Nietzsche, with the advantage of being neither dead nor insane.

There was no one in Glaik with whom he could discuss serious matters—“glaikit” in Scots means foolish, thoughtless—and selling canned soup in his father’s grocery store was no sort of launching pad for a future Ubermensch. All this he explains in simple ringing tones to his Cunégonde, Jill, who cohabits with a dropout pseudoartist called Jake. In their amiable, slack way, the couple have adopted Kelvin; or, in his more determined fashion, he has taken them over. Slovenliness is inefficient, and a sin against the will to power.

Unable to engage in conversation (except on the subject of Nietzsche) or order a meal in a restaurant, Kelvin looks like the prototypical innocent abroad, except that his innocence evinces itself as a preternatural shrewdness. The power he already possesses lies in his sheer belief in himself, and in the sort of naked intelligence shown by the boy in Hans Andersen’s tale who observed that the Emperor wore no clothes. The stock advice about starting at the bottom and working one’s way up, he points out, is deluded: the ladders are so long that you reach retirement age before you even get to the middle. He himself has no formal “qualifications,” but at the top, the right place to start, you don’t need them. “It’s years since the managing directors of chemical corporations needed to know much about chemistry. A minister of transport doesn’t bother with railway timetables.” What is necessary is self-confidence, conviction, and the common sense that enables you to gauge and control, or manipulate, your subordinates. In brief, the prime if imponderable qualities with which he repeatedly credits himself: energy, intelligence, and integrity. When he first invokes this holy trinity, Jill comments that it sounds like the motto of an insurance company.

The potential employers who interview him cannot decide whether Kelvin is insane, abnormally naive, or fiendishly cunning. (These impressions, or a confusion between them, are customarily produced by people holding some strong belief, notably a strong belief in themselves.) And the author’s playfulness is evident in the companies to which Kelvin applies for senior positions: the Libido Canalization Corporation; the Kodak Weapons Corporation; the Urban Redeployment Commission, concerned to build a new city north of the Wash to rehouse people made homeless when South London is pulled down in accordance with a new Decentralization Plan. In a highly amusing scene Kelvin exhorts the chairman of this commission to judge him, not on grounds of reason or precedent, but by natural intuition.

I stand before you as naked of past history as Adam before God on the sixth day of creation!… Does not your heart guarantee that anyone who has come to you as I have come and spoken to you as I have spoken must be fit for this job?

The answer is No, although the baffled chairman promises to recommend him for some or other position of power if, as hardly seems likely, he can do so without suffering the consequences.

To obtain interviews, Kelvin has been passing himself off as Hector McKellar, a fellow native of Glaik, and now producer of an earnest television chat show called Power Point. (A dodge Kelvin considers legitimate in the context of his own will to power.) By way of return, McKellar hires Kelvin, who is exactly the person the program has been looking for: “a simpleton, but a simpleton who asks, out of sheer naiveté, all the most pointed and devastating questions.” Kelvin proves a great success at interviewing tycoons and politicians, dropping disconcerting references in his deceptively reassuring regional accent to motes in others’ eyes and beams in their own. He even gets invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace.

But Bible-thumping runs in his blood, and he deserts his role as vox populi for that of vox Dei—Nietzsche was wrong, after all, about God being dead—inveighing against divorce, gay liberation, Marxism, and suggestive advertising, and advocating the return of capital punishment and flogging. The British public isn’t ready for a revival of Victorian morality, and so Kelvin must be brought low. McKellar does this by secretly introducing his father, Ramsay Walker, into a special program in which Kelvin is to face (and of course demolish) his various critics. Mr. Walker denounces his son as a hypocrite, a hollow shell, who used to frequent such dens of vice as public libraries, and stole money and pawned his dead mother’s trinkets in order to wallow in the wicked metropolis. “A grocer’s assistant is all you are fit for. When you have learned to walk humbly before God you may try for something else, but not before.” The television program comes to a premature end, and so does Kelvin’s meteoric career. The pride of Lucifer has led to Lucifer’s fall.

And sorry we are to witness it. We may have been hoping to see Kelvin as prime minister of a country faced with the bill for permissiveness in its sundry aspects and moving out of an unreal boom into a genuine slump. But as they walk away together, heading back to Glaik, Ramsay Walker realizes with growing awe that his son is in fact a more proficient and informed follower of God than he is himself, convinced of the value of faith but skeptical regarding charity. Kelvin is certain that a mistranslation has crept into Saint Paul’s Epistle: “Faith can move mountains but charity has very little practical value.” He will become, we are told, a television preacher, Moderator of the General Assembly of the United Seceders Free Presbyterian Church, and “the official spokesman for all that is most restrictive in Scottish religious and social opinion.” In other words, he will cultivate his own but quite sizable garden.

It would be a mistake to think of The Fall of Kelvin Walker as a stern and stringent exposé of Britain in the 1960s, or come to that of America in the 1980s, as a profound analysis of corruption in politics, business, the media, and personal relations, or of the alienation of the individual self. Alasdair Gray is enjoying himself, and if we are wise we shall enjoy ourselves too. The book is neatly consistent in tone and in its slightly (and becomingly) stilted dialogue; the central joke is drawn out no further than it can safely go; and the meager and somewhat improbable plotting complies nicely with the genre. The author’s touch is firm yet light, remote from the noisy experimentation of his first novel, Lanark, and the onanistic fantasies of 1982 Janine. In the prevailing spirit, the book is dedicated to the author’s sister: “at long last, a book by her brother which will not make her blush.”

Its final words record that Kelvin has married and fathered six children, none of them very happy, while Jake and Jill, though still unmarried, have a child of their own plus an adopted one. These two children are often happy: “It is easier for them. They are English.” If you assume, au grand sérieux, an implication to the effect that the Scottish are a downtrodden and exploited race, this is pure balder-dash. If you take it as suggesting that the Scots are readier to sacrifice mere happiness to their moral ambitions, then it is a piece of effrontery in pleasing harmony with the tenor of the tale. An epigraph from one of Barrie’s plays probably points us in the right direction: “There are few more impressive sights in the world than a Scotsman on the make.”

Angela Carter has been described as “an addicted rewriter”; a rewriter, that’s to say, of fairy tales, nursery stories, myths, and classical instances both real and fictitious. The title story of her earlier collection, The Bloody Chamber, concerning Bluebeard, that prime male chauvinist, illustrates her mode of operation at its brightest. Incorporating such gothic touches as vampirism, the larger part of the narrative unfolds in an expert reproduction of fin de siècle writing, French writing of course, for the Anglo-Saxons could never rise to such depths. “He stripped me, gourmand that he was, as if he were stripping the leaves off an artichoke.” All the same, the author still contrives a satisfyingly happy ending, with the young bride rescued in the nick of time, not by her brothers, but by her brisk mother (as the daughter of a planter in Indochina, she has had experience in driving off junkloads of Chinese pirates), and subsequently setting up house with a blind and humble piano tuner.

In the new collection, “Our Lady of the Massacre” is linguistically a pastiche of the Moll Flanders demotic. The Lancashire heroine, whose parents have died of the plague, takes to whoring, is transported to Virginia for stealing a client’s gold watch, cuts off the ears of a brutal plantation overseer, and runs away to join the “red men,” a distinctly more civilized race of beings. She marries a young brave and bears a child. When English soldiers kill her husband, she and her son are taken in by a childless minister and his wife. Little Shooting Star is duly given a respectable biblical name, but she refuses to call him by it. Thanks to the Indians, and no thanks to Christianity, she has become a good woman.

Angela Carter is at her most intemperate in “The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe.” As Poe’s future mother makes her stage debut,

at this hour, this very hour, far away in Paris, France, in the appalling dungeons of the Bastille, old Sade is jerking off. Grunt, groan, grunt, on to the prison floor…aaaagh! He seeds dragons’ teeth. Out of each ejaculation spring up a swarm of fully-armed, mad-eyed homunculi. Everything is about to succumb to delirium.

(The time scale, at any rate, can be trusted.) Poe’s father dematerializes, not merely figuratively, but literally: “He said not one word to his boys but went on evaporating until he melted clean away, leaving behind him in the room as proof he had been there only a puddle of puke on the splintered floorboards.” As is her wont, the author sprinkles into this witches’ brew a spoonful of factuality, or of the down-to-earth. In connection with Poe’s child-wife, Virginia Clemm, she remarks that in northern England “clemmed” means to be cold (or to be starving). The information may not signify much, but it acts as a braking device on fancy running riot.

Similar is her quasi-erudite relating of the name Puck to Dutch “spook,” in the story “Overture and Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and the frisky realism whereby everybody is coughing and sneezing because of the contagious fogs with which Shakespeare cursed his Athenian wood. The Golden Herm—the changeling of the play, but hermaphrodite verus here, not “a lovely boy”: that was just the patriarchal version of things—gives a grandly poetic account of himself: “Child of the sun am I, and of the breezes, juicy as mangoes, that mythopoeically caress the Coast of Coromandel far away on the porphyry and lapis lazuli Indian shore where everything is bright and precise as lacquer.” And in the next breath he jeers coarsely at Titania, “she, the great fat, showy, pink and blonde thing, the Memsahib, I call her, Auntie Tit-tit-tit-ania (for her tits are the things you notice first, size of barrage balloons).” Polymorphous perverse is what the fairies are, while Puck, who has fallen in technically difficult love with the Herm, is given to buggery, undinism, frotteurism, and scopophilia (voyeurism to us mere mortals), not to mention practices quite unmentionable. “Have you seen fairy sperm?” the reader is quizzed. “We mortals call it cuckoo spit.”

Such fearful, deliberate coyness. A takeoff, we must suppose, of the nurserytale formula, “Do you believe in fairies?” as Peter Pan enquires. A suspicion raises its horrid head that Angela Carter is addressing herself to the advanced primary schools found in some parts of London. And the keen interest young Peter evinces, in “Peter and the Wolf,” when he meets his wolf-fostered cousin and catches sight of “the crevice of her girlchild’s sex” feeds the suspicion.

On the day of her celebrated deeds, Lizzie Borden, in “The Fall River Axe Murders,” is menstruating, a time when she is prone to headaches and trances, and the weather is stiflingly hot. Andrew Borden, a miser and a grinder of the faces of the poor, has a few weeks earlier taken a hatchet to Lizzie’s pet pigeons, intending a treat for his gluttonous wife. So it’s no mystery why she gave them both any number of whacks with the same implement.

Black Venus” offers a more formidable heroine in the shape of Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s Creole mistress. “Baby, baby, let me take you back where you belong,” the poet proposes, romantically and unrealistically, “back to your lovely, lazy island where the jewelled parrot rocks on the enamel tree and you can crunch sugar-cane between your strong, white teeth.” But there is little romance in Jeanne’s heart. She would rather have a drink. Rum will do. “A slumbrous resentment of anything you could not eat, drink or smoke, i.e. burn, was her salient characteristic”; albeit she is willing to oblige “Daddy” with a sexy dance, and (which calls for some effort on her part) with sex. What this underprivileged colonial subject most resents is the linguistic richness of his poetry as compared with her poverty of utterance. After Baudelaire’s death (and after a well-informed allusion to the last sighting of her recorded by the poet’s friend, Nadar, as she limped along the street on crutches), she returns to Martinique, according to this account, where she “will continue to dispense, to the most privileged of the colonial administration, at a not excessive price, the veritable, the authentic, the true Baudelairean syphilis.” That’s one-upwomanship for you.

There is no one in these miniatures as endearing as Fevvers, the winged, deserving, and really quite sensible heroine of Angela Carter’s novel Nights at the Circus. But “The Kitchen Child” is a lively, entertaining concoction with a good deal of flavor. You can smell the food. The child in question was mysteriously engendered while his mother, a cook in an English country house, was creating a lobster soufflé, the only other effect being that her hand shook and a little too much cayenne fell into the dish.

The first toys I played with were colanders, egg whisks and saucepan lids. I took my baths in the big tureen in which the turtle soup was served. They gave up salmon until I could toddle because, as for my crib, what else but the copper salmon kettle?

Even more pleasing than downstairs getting the better of upstairs is when the two come together: by magical miscegenation the Yorkshire child becomes a French chef and the stepson of an appreciative duc.

Angela Carter’s use of language, her large, eclectic, and glittering vocabulary, alternately lush and colloquial, is undeniably impressive. Whether you always admire the workings of her imagination is another matter; the new wine she puts in these old bottles can be peculiarly sour. Some readers will be ready to sink down on their knees in awed obeisance; others will feel like throwing up at times. It might be said of her—as Whitman said of Poe—that her place is “among the electric lights of imaginative literature, brilliant and dazzling, but with no heat.”

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