James Kelman That Was a Shiver and Other Stories, Canongate, 1786890909
Fiction is make-believe but only in one sense is it not true. Fictional characters and their world – what they do, think, feel and say – do not exist in the physically real world but we can recognise a fabrication as a palpably genuine engagement with our own existence. Storytelling, however imaginatively it goes beyond the constraints of everyday experience, can be a form of cognition and good fiction does this more powerfully than not-so-good fiction. Philip Pullman’s alternative universes in His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust explore our need for knowledge in ways that leave J. K. Rowling’s boarding-school tales of wizards in the realm of juvenile escapism.
James Kelman’s fiction is in a class of its own. He doesn’t do allegory or seductively enticing prose and ethical clarity has no place in his metaphysical landscape. In That Was a Shiver, his latest collection of short stories, nothing moves in a straight line. If there is progress its contour has a crab-like vector. But this is fiction with the bite of reality: the fragile messiness of life and the uncertainty that glues itself to the process of living is what makes up his subject matter.
In the opening story, ‘Oh the Days Ahead’, a man and a woman have gone to bed but no sex has occurred. The morning after, the man’s body is sexually alive but his mind tells him that the woman’s priorities lay elsewhere, though where exactly is beyond his ken. Not knowing is what perplexes him but a male reader of this story suspects that a women reading the same text brings another level of understanding to the story.
Rueful reflections by an older man make up the second story, ‘The Cartwheels of Life’, and he could be the narrator of the first tale 30 years on: naebody can plan simplicity. It does nae matter how hard you try. That the character of ‘Pick up the Pieces’ may have recently been released from prison may account for his strange exuberance as he wanders through an urban centre. He remembers, cogitates, regrets, imagines, fantasises a meal. His grip on reality is tenuous tenuous tenuous tenuous; he can’t live off his thoughts – but he’d like to.
Men are the central characters in most of these stories. They think about themselves, study other people, mis-understand them and sometimes themselves. In ‘This Has No Title’, a man is returning home on a bus, thinking about his fellow passengers and philosophising: ‘always returning, attempting to, dragging ourselves. What is our condition? We cannot recognise our condition.’ Kelman can be unsettling because the passenger’s musings are not unlike yours or mine and yet they add up to very little of any consequence and border on nonsense. This is how ‘This Has No Title’ ends:
My jaw ached: I had been smiling. That sense of futility. We persons, and doing our best. I, therefore, was glad to be on this bus, to be returning alongside them.
The ‘and then’, constituting a paragraph of its own, signals a refusal to offer the kind of closure or consolation offered by the formal conclusion of the traditional short story. Some of the tales develop slowly over many pages but ‘A Friend’ occupies a single page: this is all it takes for Kelman to evoke the sense of loss that hurts when the absence of someone loved is remembered. It prevents the narrator from completing his own understanding of what absence is doing to him:
And I can not get to it, and to her, what of her? I can not reach her. It is too painful; memories, image, neither an image, not a thought. She was a friend. Her smile was to me.
Wittgenstein — ‘what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence’ – would have approved of the necessarily short word count for recounting a memory of the past.
That Was a Shiver is not a page-turner, a time filler to while away a journey, but a book for slow reading, as night approaches, when you’re alone and able to dwell on the unspoken thoughts that punctuate passages of dialogue between the characters. Kelman is a writer whose greatness is only intermittently unappreciated by the literary Establishment. Maybe he would not want it any other way. It might be worrying if his work could be cut and dried, shrink-wrapped and put on display. His prose is not a commodity.
Sean Sheehan is author of ‘Žiżek: A Guide for the Perplexed’ (Continuum, 2012) and’ A Guide to Herodotus’ Histories’ (Bloomsbury, 2018)