How Late It Was, How Late – James Kelman

27 May 2008
To Thursday morning
Sammy’s managed to drag himself home and get a night’s rest. Jesus christ I mean tae say jesus christ but. And now I remember whenever I’m in Pitsmoor and wishing I could write it all down, I wish I could write like James Kelman.

I suppose you could read it as a satirical take on Mrs Dalloway. Or an updated, downmarket Ulysses. Certainly the close-up, tactile quality is Joyce all over – and Sammy’s blindness only adds to that: there can’t be any wide shots when the world begins and ends with the flat of your hand on the wall. Ok, so there’s sometimes the sound of traffic, or the mutter mutter mutter of suspicious passers-by… but they don’t widen Sammy’s viewpoint, just send him further inside himself. Inside remembered conversations, or half-remembered songs, or… all the other places your mind can go to when it’s swirling around inside itself, or around the pain in your feet and your kidneys and back. (And, oh yeh, before I forget: there’s a narrator who speaks in the same dialect as Sammy, with the same kind of conversational tics. But he’s only audible for a tiny fraction of the narrative; 90+ percent of it is Sammy himself.)

I love it. It presses all the right buttons for me, doing for the 90s what Joyce was doing in the 20s: taking arthouse fiction out of its comfortable places and into regions it doesn’t usually go to. But then, is it arthouse fiction? Is Kelman’s intended audience made up of the same people who read Ishiguro and McEwan? Or does he hope to get through to a different readership, like the writers of the early to mid-20th Century who could (I assume) look to a literate working class who were ready for novels relating to their own lives? There’s the rub. Is there such a readership now, even in Scotland, for fiction like Kelman’s? It’s harder going than Trainspotting – and I wonder how many people of the kind that Welsh describes would have felt like reading that book. Dunno. And I’m not sure why I’m bothering to speculate.

Anyway. Like Joyce – no, not like Joyce. Start again. Like, er, James Kelman, this novelist can take five pages to get a character shuffling ten sightless yards down the street. He’s woken up legless, he’s tried to beat up a ‘sodjer’, he’s been beaten up, he’s spent two or three nights in a cell, he’s realised he’s gone blind, and he’s got himself home. Meanwhile we’ve explored the inside of his head like Gepetto and Pinocchio explored the inside of the whale. We know what a pisshead he is, how crap he is, how large parts of his internal monologue are secondhand and second-rate. But, because Kelman’s been so good at getting us inside there with the sad bollock, we’re kind of ok with that. Am I loving it? All I know is it’s going down without touching the sides.

1 June
To Sammy’s first Friday night as a blind man
He’s stuck indoors, still not really coming to terms with it. How could he? We get up close to some of the practicalities – making toast, heating soup – just as earlier we had the practicalities of his first proper trip out: sawn-off broomstick, blind bus-ride…. To the DSS to sort out a disability claim. That’s a disaster, obviously. We get to understand something else about Sammy’s world: that kind of grudging fatalism. He’s been blinded by an assault in custody, but as soon as he gets up close to the mechanics of the bureaucracy he panics, backtracks on his allegations, resorts to the usual defeatism. He’s fucked – ‘fuckt’. Of course he is. Just as he’s fucked if Helen decides to chuck him out. He invents possible futures, based on ignorance (as it would be): will he be moved up the council list? Will he be in a Blind Asylum? How should he know?

Friday night, then – the night when, jesus christ, everyone’s entitled to a pint. He can’t face the looks of sympathy he knows he’ll get – it doesn’t help that he won’t see them, because he’ll know – so he stays in. Jesus christ.

3 June
About half-way through…
…to page 188 of my edition. Sammy’s in custody, and he’s in the shit. I find the interrogation process scarily real: it’s direct speech, but not as we know it, with voices appearing on the page like they appear in the air to Sammy, faceless and hard to place. That is, hard to put into any context that might help him to make the right response. Something dreadful has happened, they think Sammy probably knows about it – although he thinks he doesn’t – and all his years of cutting himself adrift of any possible success in life are counting against him. He knows he’s fucked and, as ever, doesn’t quite understand why. I find this as convincing as the blind experience of the interrogation. Just as in the first hours of the novel, Kelman puts you right on the inside of what Sammy’s going through.

What more to say? There’s the beginning of a plot – or, rather, the plot that’s been lurking in the background all along is beginning to emerge. Helen, the girlfriend, has been gone a week – and the cops are convinced it’s something to do with a ‘political’ Sammy met during his lost day. They say they don’t think – they ‘know’ Sammy’s not directly involved. Which means they think he is. As does the hapless reader, of course, because we’ve no information to the contrary.

Interesting that two Booker winners of the mid-90s focused largely (or wholly) on men who suffer from memory blackouts. Ok, not that interesting.

9 June
To Sammy waking up on Tuesday morning
So, more days have passed and – guess what? – things are getting worse and worse. Sammy was with the cops from Saturday night until Monday morning. Then they drop him off at the medical centre where he is to be assessed. Cue two set-pieces: Sammy the fuckup and his dealings with the outside world. First he lets the cynical, time-serving doctor walk all over him. When he realises what’s gone on he has a fight with him. No surprises there, then – although the way Kelman describes the loose cannon that is Sammy’s brain is utterly believable. And then there’s the ‘rep’, an ambulance-chaser who will help Sammy sort things out. On balance, the reader feels he’d probably be a useful ally in the shifting sandbanks of an impenetrable system. Sammy, after some scepticism, finally appears to be ready to accept the help. Alleluia: he’s going to do something sensible at last. We know he’s got no chance on his own: not only does he know nothing, he’s not interested in finding out about a system that’s spent 30-odd years fucking him up.

Reader, you’ve not been paying attention. He screws the papers up, ready to chuck away when the rep’s not looking. There are some things a man’s got to do on his own. Sammy has plans: he’ll sell the knocked-off shirts, he’ll go to America, he’ll go to England, he’ll… he doesn’t know what he’ll do, of course, except get out. And, as the day turns to evening and Sammy fantasises about the future – all the time knowing, surely, that his plans will come to nothing – Kelman twists the knife. He goes out to check, just this last time, to see if Helen still works at the pub. She doesn’t, of course. All Sammy gets is a row with a taxi-driver and a failed bust-up with some bouncers… and, at the next pub, confirmation that he’s got nobody pulling for him. Drinking buddies buy him drinks but don’t want to talk. One of them, who’s had a visit from the cops because of whatever it is Sammy might or might not have done, is furious with him. All Sammy’s got to offer in mitigation is his blindness: for ‘about six seconds’ he pulls down his lower eyelids and makes his so-called buddy look at him. About six seconds, I love that.

All through this Monday we’ve watched his growing desperation and it’s hard to foresee anything but worse to come. All he’s got is defiance, but it hasn’t got him anywhere yet and it won’t now. I’m wondering: is he going to end up dead? Or rather, how exactly is he going to die?

11 June
To the end
Well, Tiny Tim didn’t die. Sammy had nowhere to go but he went anyway…. By about 50 or 60 pages from the end I’d decided it was going to become a kind of Beckett play. Sammy is left alone in his impotent defiance, raging against everything and telling himself what he’s going to do. The hapless reader can see that there’s no shred of a chance that Sammy will be able to do anything, and for tens of pages he seems trapped in the flat. He keeps remembering things he hasn’t done, or that he’s started but not finished; whatever happens, it increasingly looks as though he’s trapped in a kind of existential dead-end. As I was reading I was finding it almost unbearably sad: this bloke has nowhere to go and he’s too bloody-minded even to realise it. Which is why I assumed, with a quarter of the book still to go, that he was doomed.

The fact that at the end he’s out of the flat and on his way somewhere doesn’t mean he’s not doomed, of course, just that he’s doomed in a different way. And the plot device that allows this to happen is the arrival of his son. There have been only a handful of encounters in this novel: the fragments of verbal (and physical) violence that characterise his disastrous dealings with the police early on; the appointment with the DSS woman, which allows Kelman some satirical remarks on how funny some people’s accents are; the doctor; the rep; Tam, the friend who can’t wait to get out of Sammy’s company. They’re important exchanges that Kelman gets absolutely right, and most of them go on for a lot of pages. But through them all Sammy remains defiantly apart, mistrusting, trying to assess people’s real motives and how they are trying to fuck him up. Sammy, come to think of it, really does live in Beckett’s universe: he’s completely alone.

Before his son’s arrival, the rep makes another appearance. Whatever universe he inhabits it’s not the same as Sammy’s, and Sammy smiles and nods and says whatever he thinks will get him off his back. (This is his usual method. It’s as though the position he always seeks is being alone, independent, private.) It’s the rep who sends Sammy’s son, to get photographs of the injuries. And this encounter, complicated by the presence of his son’s friend (he’s the one with the camera), is the best thing in the book. Sammy puts himself in role as the boy’s respected father, and jokes and cajoles his way through the complicated story of why the photos are needed, what happened to him, what he’s going to do….

The boy, only 15, sees right through this and realises how desperate Sammy is. He sees his father is determined to go to England, so offers to go with him. Of course, he disguises the suggestion as a favour he’s asking – but, of course, Sammy can’t face the idea of not being on his own, not being away. So the boy offers him all his savings instead. Which Sammy – with endless repetitions of his good intentions – promises to return. He knows, his son knows, his son’s friend knows – and we know – that this isn’t going to happen. If we’ve thought that far ahead we can see Sammy as a down-and-out within days of arriving in whatever English city he ends up in.

All the possibilities of plot developments – to do with the girlfriend’s disappearance, or the trouble he might be in with the cops, or his compensation claim – have gradually fallen away. Sammy’s on his own and so off he goes. He’s left half his clothes behind because he forgot to take them out of the washing machine, he still has no proper shoes… but he has his music cassettes, and his plans. And, as the last three words of the novel tell us, for the first time since page 1 he’s ‘out of sight’.

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