Old Men in Love: John Tunnock's Posthumous Papers
by Alasdair Gray
Reviewed by Gerry Donaghy
Recently I attended Book Expo America, an annual book industry trade show where booksellers and publishers get together to discuss both why there's never been a better time to be in publishing and how, regardless of our best intentions, our industry is doomed. While elbowing for space at a bar packed with aspiring Bukowskis (the cirrhosis MFA program?), I discussed literary heartbreak with a few fellow book peddlers. No, we weren't talking about heartbreak as depicted in fiction, or even real-life lovers of the writerly persuasion. Rather, we were discussing the authors who we treasure and yet, despite our most valiant efforts, simply have had a hard time gaining the rabid following of your Stephen Kings and James Pattersons.
Take Scottish author Alasdair Gray, of whose work I've extolled the virtues twice for Review-a-Day (once in 2002, and again in 2004). Gray's latest novel, Old Men in Love, originally published in 2007 in the U.K., purports to be the posthumous papers of John Tunnock, an anonymous Glasgow schoolmaster convinced of his own literary greatness. Gray has been entrusted by Tunnock's sole surviving heir (Lady Sara Sim-Jaegar, an anagram of Gray's full name) to edit, annotate, and publish these papers, which consist primarily of the fragments of three novels and diary entries covering the seven years from the Twin Towers attack of 2001 to Tunnock's death in 2007.
Tunnock's fragmentary novels cover three distinct historical periods -- Classical Athens, Renaissance Florence, and Edinburgh during the Scottish Enlightenment -- and all bear the hallmarks of writing that has more righteousness of purpose than evidence of literary talents. Having read more than my fair share of poorly written slush-pile rejects, which the amateurishness of these sections rival, I recognize the stilted writing style and appreciate the awkward yet charming earnestness of Tunnock's writings. More satisfying are Tunnock's diary entries, which show, when stripped of attempts at historical allegory, that Tunnock, while maybe not a gifted writer, was certainly a keen observer of the human spirit and an articulate advocate of self-expression.
Gray deploys his usual tricks, elaborations, and shortcuts in Old Men in Love, which will either satisfy his fans or provide ammunition for his critics. Gray is a shameless recycler of old material, and reading this book sometimes felt like watching a director's cut of a movie I've seen before (which for me and my biased relationship to Gray isn't a bad thing). He includes abundant marginal notes and references to plagiarized material, and his habit of self-deprecation as a shield against external criticism is also present, in the form of an epilogue by the fictitious Sidney Workman, who provided a similar function in a recent reissue of Lanark. This may seem a bit self-serving, but I've always been a big believer in the idea that you can't say anything bad about me that I haven't already thought myself.
Clear in this book, as in past volumes, is Gray's devotion to the idea of the book as an object. Throughout his career he has designed his own books (usually to either save his publisher some cash or collect a second paycheck), and Old Men in Love is no exception. Poorly suited to a Kindle reading experience, it's filled with various typefaces, ornamental drawings, and Blake-inspired illustrations. Even the boards of the book itself are tooled in silver-looking flake. If eBooks are the future, it looks like Gray is going to go out swinging.
What makes reading Alasdair Gray worthwhile is that, though he may not always be a successful literary stylist, he repeatedly manages to articulate our innate need to be creative and the despair that comes with the inability to successfully express ourselves. He also reminds us that often our ideals exceed our actions and abilities. More than once, he's introduced his novels with the exhortation, "Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation," and it's this optimism, in the face of sometimes overwhelming odds, that keeps me coming back to this author.