Things I’m Reading Thursday #20
Stuff I’m reading, and what I thought of it.
The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson
I’ve been lucky enough to see James Robertson read three times in the past five months. The first time, we appeared on the same bill at the May Shore Poets event (I was first up, he was the headliner), and he read a selection of his poetry and poetry translations, which I really enjoyed. The second time, he’d come to speak to the students of the summer school I was teaching at, and he read a selection of work — some poems, some of his Scots translations for children, and excerpts from his newest work and from The Testament of Gideon Mack. Most recently, I saw him read at the Edwin Morgan tribute evening at the end of the 2010 Edinburgh International Book Festival.
As our paths kept crossing — and as I really enjoyed Robertson’s readings every time I encountered him — I decided I should probably buy one of his books. He’s written a lot, but chances are Gideon Mack is the one you’ve heard of. It was longlisted for the Booker and even got a nod from Richard and Judy, the ultimate accolade in fiction these days, it seems. It’s also about Satan — a bloke who never fails to interest me.
The Testament of Gideon Mack is the story of a Scottish minister called — unsurprisingly — Gideon Mack. Mack ministers to his small rural parish, runs marathons for charity and lives in the shadow of an overbearing father. He’s also a determined atheist… until one day he bumps into the Devil.
The book is a lovely, smooth read, but deceptively clever. Gideon Mack is the narrator of his own testament, but not the narrator of the novel — the testament is being quoted verbatim by an Edinburgh publisher, who’s grappling with the potential legal and moral implications of making it a commercial public document. Throughout this meta-narrative (the aforementioned publisher butts into the testament at the most inopportune moments to offer editorial notes, suggestions and clarifications), Robertson constantly plays with the reader’s ideas about truth, trust, reliability and doubt. Mack is determined that his tale is 100% true, and insists that he is of sound mind even when recounting his conversations with the Devil. You want to believe him, though it’s clear that his congregation do not, and though all evidence points toward mental illness and delusion. In spite of his innate duplicity (only at the very end of his tenure as a minister does he impart to any of his parishoners that actually, he’s never really believed in God), Mack is alarmingly convincing, and when the novel’s epilogue begins to blow holes in the reliability of the testament, it comes as a jolting shock. Robertson is gleefully messing with the idea of the unreliable narrator, as well as making sure that the reader is never able to draw a line under anything — there are no absolute truths in this novel. Does Gideon Mack really reject God entirely? Did he really meet the Devil? Is the testament a fiction? Is the diligent publisher really quoting it totally verbatim? Can we trust anyone’s version of events? None of these questions are ever answered. I absolutely loved the book, not just for its cleverness — it’s also just a damn good story, and it’s full of nods to great, classic Scottish Literature (primarily Hogg, obviously, and a good smattering of Stevenson, too). By turns dark, funny and painfully real, it’s a novel that will stick in your mind long after you put it down.
I’ve got shockingly behind with everything this summer. It’s been a weird old time — ending my relationship of five years, moving house at short notice, teaching a highly intensive summer school and trying not to lose my grip on my term-time job, PhD and other commitments in the process. A lot of things fell by the wayside, including several promises of reviews here on ONS. I’m finally righting the balance, and beginning to work my way through the books I should have featured here months ago.
First up is McGuire’s debut collection, Riddled With Errors. If you’ve ever visited ONS before, chances are you already know a little bit about McGuire. You possibly know that he’s a former Featured Poet, or that he’s one of the 100 poets contributing to the this collection project. You’ll almost certainly know that I think he’s pretty darned brilliant.
To me, McGuire’s work is criminally overlooked in the Scottish poetry scene, though he is beginning to be talked about here and there. A gifted performer, there’s nothing quite like hearing him read his own work, but reading Riddled With Errors, I was surprised by how well the poems translated to the page. I was also surprised by the influences I was able to see in them. If you’ve spent any time at all at One Night Stanzas, you’ll know that I am a massive Allen Ginsberg fangirl, so comparisons to the great man are few and far between. But here is a poet who genuinely echoes a true Beat style and aesthetic. Check out, for example, the final stanza of Commander Poetry: “many beautiful things occur / sun rise milk and glancing / much horror much terror / world blood and bombshells / much private hell”. Or Thunder roars tonight!: “And many shut their windows, / rub their hands together, / close curtains, boil the kettle / and watch television!” Or Concrete Irrationality:
DADA IS GOD! DADA IS EASY!
DADA IS ALGEBRA! DADA HAS TEN BILLION TANGIBLE
SOULS! DADA SLEEPS FOR ETERNITY WITH EYES OPEN!
But however much he is indebted to the Beats, McGuire is never derivative. These poems manage to remain fresh, original and somehow innately Scottish. Like Ginsberg, this poet is not afraid to shy away from sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll — if any poetry collection were to come with a Parental Advisory warning, it ought to be this one. But it’s the immediacy, the urgency and the candid, roving eye of these poems that gives them their edge. This is free verse that is truly free, refusing to be pinned down. Read it if you dare.
What are you reading this week?