James Kelman - A Disaffection (1989)
- Alan Bissett
- 1 January 2005
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
How Late it Was, How Late may have grabbed the headlines, The Busconductor Hines may have been more seminal, but it is A Disaffection, quietly, which is James Kelman’s best book. Its ‘hero’ (a problematic term; it’s James Kelman we’re talking about) is Patrick Doyle, a single, bored English teacher. Each day he gently pines for a married colleague, clashes with his racist brother and fires frustrated polemic at his sixth-formers. Aware that he has succumbed to the rottenness of the system, disgusted by his employment as tool of the British state, he rebels in a most peculiar manner: by trying to fashion some old pipes into a musical instrument on which he can play the song of his sorrow. It is a symbol both of hope and the ridiculous.
Patrick stumbles through the novel’s barren plains, searching for something, anything, that will help salve his pain, but makes no progress beyond endless cups of tea and stubbed out cigarettes. This book is a deep, slow, moving feast. Sceptics and supporters alike often reduce Kelman to his language, as if the ability to write in urban Scots is itself an achievement, but his real innovations lie elsewhere. Kelman captures the tremors and tempo of consciousness itself, immersing the reader in the yearning, futility and drained moments of hope in each hour of Patrick’s world.
The characters in a Kelman novel are incarcerated not only in a socio-economic hell, but in their very existence. As such, Kelman becomes a novelist-philosopher in the tradition of Camus and Kafka, an experimentalist as redoubtable as Joyce or Beckett, and a writer who mines for the dignity in his characters even deeper than Steinbeck can. It is in A Disaffection that his vision is most complete: sad, human and vital.
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