“if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively”
In this essay I explore the relationship between identity and the imagination in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark: A Life in Four Books. I unpick the uncanny layering and blurring of the reality in this text, and also explore the extent to which it matters which is the ‘real’ identity, and which is the ‘imagined’.
Alasdair Gray’s Lanark: A Life in Four Books is a modern masterpiece. It’s a chaotic jumble of genres, themes and styles; blending fantasy with reality, realism with post-modernism and everything in between. The one constant throughout the novel seems to be its preoccupation with the notion of identity. Questions of identity are brimming out of the pages of this text, from the mirrored identities of Thaw and Lanark, to the diseases that define identity in books three and four, Lanark’s mysterious past and Thaw’s struggle to find acceptance. Identity is such a huge part of this novel that to try and talk about everything all at once would take weeks to write, and would take up pages and pages of this blog: there’s explorations of masculinity and femininity, of class struggle, of fatherhood, of national identity and so much more. I am going to focus instead on the ways in which Gray’s ideas of identity and belonging are illustrated throughout the novel through the evocation of imagination: the importance of the imagined identity in the creation of the ‘real’ identity.
Firstly, it’s important to consider the structure of the book itself. Books one and two are enveloped by books three and four, giving the unusual order of three, one, two, four. This already highlights the importance of a coexistence of the imagined and the reality. The two strands of the narrative – Thaw of books one and two and Lanark of books three and four – mirror and build upon each other, to the extent that while the two strands could be enjoyed separately, Gray’s delicate composition and engagement with identity is only fully appreciated when the texts are read together. In this way their enveloped structure represents their unity, rather than their stark differences.
For example, Lanark’s strand of the narrative is set in Unthank – a dark, gloomy, fantasy version of Glasgow. It is a sunless place, where the inhabitants suffer from a variety of diseases that largely define, and are defined by, each character’s identity. Lanark suffers from dragonhide: a condition where dragon scales begin to grow on those who are ‘cold’, reserved from the world and afraid of opening up. Another group are classed as ‘rigorists’ who ‘bargain with his heat…they give it away but only in exchange for fresh supplies’ (p.70), and other groups such as leeches and sponges are mentioned briefly. On its own, this representation of identity through diseases is a clever metaphor, but when we compare this to the mirrored narrative, that of Thaw, we see some uncanny similarities. Thaw suffers from eczema, another skin condition that sets him apart from those around him, especially women, who are repulsed by it. Where identity is literally worn on the sleeves of the characters on Unthank, Thaw constantly struggles to make sense of the people around him. The role of women, sex and relationships in Lanark is, however, a whole other discussion for another day.
This is just one of the more obvious ways in which the identities in this text are mirrored; throughout the overall development of the narratives, however, this builds to the suggestion that they are the same person, or perhaps less literally, two halves of the same identity. We see this illustrated by Nastler, a character who appears near the end of the novel with the claim that he is the ‘author’ – just one way in which Gray blurs the lines between reality and imagination in this text. It is Nastler who claims of Lanark, ‘you are Thaw with the neurotic imagination trimmed off and built into the furniture around you’ (p.493), again blurring the boundaries between the narratives of this text. Yet this also set Lanark up as the ‘imagined’ identity to Thaw, the ‘real’ identity. Lanark literally exists within Thaw’s identity – the physical representation of which is bleak, gloomy and at times grotesque. But these identities and narratives are not completely distinct – there are moments when we see crossovers between the two, for example in the bodiless voices that Lanark hears in the Institute that are in fact repeating words from Thaw’s narrative, for example the final words of book two, ‘annihilating sweetness’ (p.64 & 354).
We also get an eerie sense of their shared identity at the revelation that Thaw, assumedly, kills himself in the sea – and Lanark wakes up at the beginning of his narrative with no recollection of his name, and only sand and shells in his pockets. However, I think it would be somewhat demeaning to simply argue that Lanark and Unthank are merely Thaw’s experience of the afterlife. It would be equally simplistic to suggest that they are the same character existing in parallel universes, or that Lanark doesn’t exist in reality at all, only as a figment of Thaw’s imagination. I think it is precisely this book’s ambiguity that makes it such a fascinating read: in the end it doesn’t really matter what the exact nature of the relationship between Lanark and Thaw is, because it is the way in which Gray constructs this relationship that provides the greatest depth of meaning. Whether ‘real’ or ‘imagined’, Lanark’s story is no less compelling than Thaw’s.
Gray further complicates these ideas of ‘real’ and ‘imagined’ identities when he reminds us of the constructed nature of the entirety of the text when he introduces Nastler, the ‘author’. We know this isn’t the true author, but his appearance serves as an imagined identity of what we perceive as the ‘real’ Alasdair Gray. Not only this, but Gray makes use of the imagined space of the text itself, in the complicated layering of reality and imagination in which Unthank provides an ‘imagined’ version of the Glasgow that appears in Thaw’s narrative, which in turn is merely an imagined version of the ‘real’ Glasgow that we love and know. Lanark is no more ‘imagined’ than Thaw is, both characters being constructions of Gray’s imagination. Yet both of these imagined identities seem to play a crucial role in Gray’s exploration of his own identity, as we see autobiographical elements in the text, such as Gray’s childhood evacuation during the war, his time at Glasgow School of Art and his experiences painting murals. In the same way that Gray suggests that ‘if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively’ (p.234), we can also see that if identity is not explored through art and imagination, it is difficult to understand and appreciate the ‘real’ identity.
In conclusion, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark: A Life in Four Books, is a fascinating read for too many reasons to count. His exploration into the contentious relationship between the real and the imagined is particularly striking, and the ambiguities of the text serve to destabilise our understanding of both. What is clear, however, is that Lanark’s story is no less crucial to the text as a whole for his ‘imagined’ status, existing both as an uncanny mirroring of Thaw’s story, and a distinct narrative in itself.
The text I used for this essay was Alasdair Gray, Lanark: A Life in Four Books, (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2007)