The Manchester Review

James Kelman, reviewed by Helen McCarthy

It felt a little bit like sacrilege to sit in the presence of James Kelman and not have a clue who he was. The rest of the audience had Americanos in their hands and serious, eager looks on their faces. And there was Kelman, loitering behind the stage and pouring himself a strong looking ale while he was being introduced as a Scottish working class hero who ‘blew prejudices out of the water’. Seemingly unimpressed and slightly embarrassed by his introduction, Kelman stood on the small stage and began to read a range of his short stories. And my God were they short. Agonisingly short. I hated how short they were. When he’d finished some sickening prose about an accident on a factory floor in which a man falls into a giant vat of acid, I wanted to stand up and shout; ‘Is that IT!? You can’t stop there!’

But he can. He absolutely can, and he absolutely should. In his conciseness, he manages to eliminate every shred of pretention from his description. He could write about a spring meadow and somehow make it wonderful to read, rather than stomach-churning. In ‘That Bed’ he described a woman’s lips as ‘round and mystifying’, ‘to call them sensual was an error. An error.’ I had to sit back and think about that one. I had to stop taking notes for a few minutes just to take it in.

His final reading was from his latest novel, ‘Mo Said She Was Quirky’. Everything about it was so subtle; the language, the description, the characters (who had more dimensions than I thought was possible on a page). And then there was a revelation. A revelation made all the more shocking by the fact that it was surrounded by quietly brilliant prose. Kelman really doesn’t seem like the sort who’d want to shock, that would be far too clumsy and obvious. He doesn’t need to resort to that.

The extract Kelman read focussed on the minutiae of a tiny moment, and it all felt necessary; not too much, not in any way ridiculous. He could have described the cracks in the pavement and it would have made me want to stare at concrete.

Kelman is a truly interesting man. He sat down for the Q&A, water in one hand, ale in the other. Almost every question seemed to baffle him at first. I like to think that it was because he’s so inherently gifted, it’s hard for him to explain his techniques.

He pretty much dismissed the first question, which was the slightly predictable and pointless; ‘Do you make conscious language and stylistic choices when you write from a female character’s perspective?’ He quipped in reply, brilliantly, that he had daughters, a wife, a mother, sisters and aunts, so he liked to think he ‘wasn’t too detached from women.’

When the opportunity to ask questions was turned over to the audience he revealed more of himself. He discussed his tendency to write about his characters as though he were following them with a handheld camera, recording every detail. To begin a paragraph with ‘the next day’ or ‘when he got home’ is an abominable waste to Kelman. I certainly don’t think I’ll ever do it again.

Structurally, I think he’s changed my perception of short stories forever. He completely dismissed the old-school theory that a story needs a beginning, a middle and an end, with the brilliant; ‘Imagine a Van Gogh painting with a beginning, a middle and an end’. And when asked about Clive Anderson’s recent comments that a short story absolutely must have a twist, Kelman suggested that Anderson ‘retreat to 1450’.

And after nearly two hours, that was it. He retreated to the back of the room, ready to sign eager people’s books. I left while they congregated around, as I walked past the large window to The Anthony Burgess Foundation building, Kelman hung around all his books and all his admirers, still drinking his ale.


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