Contrived Machinery

James Robertson, Republics of the Mind

Black & White, 256pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781845024918

reviewed by Frith Taylor

In the title story of James Robertson's Republics of the Mind, a Scottish woman, enraged by a Conservative victory on an unspecified election night, throws an empty wine bottle at her television screen. The television promptly explodes, bringing a swift and unexpectedly satisfying end to an interview with a government minister. The incident dramatises feelings of disappointment and frustration shared by many Scots. Her husband's means of protest are quieter - he retreats into what he calls ‘the Scottish republic of the mind’: an imagined state that serves as an ‘antidote to the post election hangover […] a state of being in which all people understood themselves, and what they were doing, and why they were where they were.’

This blend of the personal and political is typical of Robertson's work. Much of his writing uses an (often contentious) issue as a means of developing and exploring character. Listed along with Irvine Welsh and James Kelman, Robertson is another in a long line of conscientious, provocative Scottish writers. He has tackled such varied subject matter as Scottish devolution and religious fanaticism, his novels a series of inventive, meticulously researched attempts to document Scotland's past and present. Robertson's earlier works, The Fanatic (4th Estate, 2000), The Testament of Gideon Mack, (Hamish Hamilton, 2006) and And The Land Lay Still (Hamish Hamilton, 2010) were met by considerable critical acclaim, establishing Robertson as one of Scotland's foremost writers.

While Robertson's Republics of the Mind is something of a departure from sweeping, episodic sagas such as And the Land Lay Still, this latest work is similarly ambitious. The collection of short stories spans Robertson's writing career, combining new and selected works. Most are set in Scotland, with the exception of the rather incongruous ‘Future According to Luke’ which takes place on a reservation in South Dakota. In contrast to his hefty, historical novels, in Republics of the Mind Robertson creates a portrait of Scotland comprised small snapshots. Robertson's narrative framing varies from bleak realism to a kind of contemporary Gothic. In many stories, Robertson creates an acute sense of foreboding. ‘MacTaggart's Shed’ is a dystopian vision of a Scotland riven with ethnic cleansing, while ‘Plagues’ is a darkly comic story of a man besieged by a quietly menacing horde of frogs.

The stories vary considerably in length: some are rather more like flash fiction, while others are allowed to develop at a more leisurely pace. The more fantastical stories borrow something of the suburban macabre of Roald Dahl's short fiction. Robertson's realist narratives explore the everyday ambitions and frustrations of ordinary people, addressing both the deeply affecting and the explicitly mundane. Throughout the collection, Robertson attempts to tackle a series of serious subjects, such as grief, ageing, illness and estrangement, repeatedly returning to the broad theme of connection, and the difficulty in maintaining relationships. While each premise has the makings of a good story, there is a stifled, sparse quality to Robertson's prose that is symptomatic, perhaps, of a writer used to more room. And the Land Lay Still is an extensive work over 700 pages, and allowed Robertson to develop a rich and varied account of Scotland's history from the Union of Parliaments in 1707 to the present day. Robertson's longer narratives allowed for more lyrical language. We only have a glimpse of this at the beginning of ‘Opportunities’:

‘I came across a poem today by Robert Louis Stevenson, about a lighthouse keeper high above the sea, surrounded by “the chill blind circle of the night”: he is reading, oblivious to a gull beating against the pane of light. The poem finishes with something about the keeper being a martyr to his salary, but it was the gull more than the man that affected me. I thought of the bird drawn like a moth to a flame, and of the dull, irresistible impulse that brought it wearily to the signal that was not meant for it. And I disliked the coldness of the man within, aloof as a god, unaffected by the gull's hope and its despair.’

The poetic detail is carefully realised and allows for a more intimate immersion in this story than the majority of the stories, many of which are rather too heavily freighted with political content. While no polemicist, Robertson's politics are clearly close to his heart, and have inspired some of his best work. Robertson's treatment of political issues in Republics of the Mind lacks the punch of his wonderful poem ‘A Manifesto for MSPs’ in Voyage of Intent (Luath, 2005). The poem delights in its hoard of Scots words, serving as both a political manifesto and a means of connection to Scotland's rich literary heritage. In a moment of characteristic sincerity, Robertson said that he hoped that each MSP (Member of the Scottish Parliament) would pin the poem on their wall. It is this unabashed, heartfelt idealism that makes Robertson a favourite among his readers, as well as endearing him to Scotland's left.

There are certainly moments in Republics of the Mind where this sentiment comes through, but it is in the collection's dialogue rather than its explicitly political content where Robertson's skill lies. He has an excellent ear for the rhythms of speech, and Republics of the Mind has some carefully weighted, engaging exchanges. Robertson is one of many contemporary Scottish writers whose work deliberately features Scots or urban Glaswegian speech.

As well as including Scots in his own writing, Robertson has translated various texts, from the Book of Proverbs, to a portion of Baudelaire's The Flowers of Evil. In 2002 Robertson founded the imprint Itchy Coo, and published several collections for children, largely the translation of children's literature classics in English into Scots. Such titles include The Sleekit Mr Tod (Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr Fox) and The Hoose at Pooh's Neuk (a collection of AA Milne's Winnie the Pooh stories). From Tom Leonard's highly politicised Scots orthography to Irvine Welsh's urban Glaswegian accents, non-RP poetry and prose remains a contested issue. As late as the mid-1990s James Kelman was criticised for his Booker Prize-winning How Late It Was, How Late, one critic dismissing the novel as 'lumpenproletariat'. Robertson makes an important statement, then, in including both 'accented' and Scots words in Republics of the Mind.

There is a deeply humane quality to Robertson's work, and throughout the collection he makes a concerted effort to voice the experiences of the marginalised or under-represented. Robertson employs a host of characters from varying socio-economic backgrounds, and several stories engage with class or gender politics. ‘What Love Is’ centres around Joan and Dan, a middle-aged couple who have become estranged from each other. The narrative comes to a potentially redemptive turning point when Joan confronts a misogynistic colleague. This section of the story makes for satisfying reading as the man is easily detestable, but as Robertson has created a caricature sexist, the story's gender politics lack nuance. Robertson's approach to mental illness is rather more problematic - in ‘Sixes and Sevens’ it is used as a plot device rather than confronted as a serious issue. The story is set in an abandoned psychiatric ward, a perfect example of what Leslie Fiedler called the ‘contrived machinery [... and] shoddy theatre of the Gothic.’

There are a number of interesting touches in this collection: the macabre surrealism of ‘The Giraffe’ and ‘Plagues’ and wordplay in ‘Willie Masson's Miracle’, along with a smattering of Biblical references. Many stories are, however, somewhat formulaic. Several begin with a punchy sentence, followed by the exploration of a problem that refuses to resolve. The open-ended conclusions feel a little self-conscious; there are several instances in the collection where the mechanics of the story are too clear to the reader. While Robertson fans may enjoy Republics of the Mind, others may feel that the collection doesn't quite stand up to his earlier, more focused works.