In 1994, James Kelman had been nominated for the Booker Prize. One of the judges, Rabbi Dame Julia Newberger, had called the book “a disgrace” and said “Frankly, it’s crap” (oh, Rabbi!) and threatened to “resign” if Kelman was awarded the prize for his book How Late It Was, How Late. It won.
I have not read that, nor any other Kelman. But from what I gather he’s always had an uncompromising vision. Here, a treatise on class, racial-religious intolerance, and educational opportunity, is cloaked in a coming-of-age novel. The story of Kieron Smith up to the age of about 12 is narrated in a sort of stream-of-consciousness style almost entirely in the head of the young, inarticulate Smith. In dialect.
It’s a novel best read out loud as Kieron deals with his problems and tries to find his way in the world: his belief that his older brother is the chosen one, while he gets short shrift in everything; his trials at school and fitting into a new environment after the family moves; the necessity to avoid the bullies and maintain his dignity; the desire to excel in sports, daring, or fighting; the first inkling of sexual awareness.
In Kieron’s head phrases are repeated over and over as he tries to make sense of his world and his grasp of it. His coming to terms. Sometimes these phrases are repeated back to back in the same sentence, as Kieron replays his own internal soundtrack to see if even he understood what he was thinking. Kieron wants this growing up process to be over, to be on his own. To be independent and beholden to no one. He comes to believe in what he calls “the Fates”. So much is out of his control at this stage of his life, that he toys with the idea that all his future life is pre-ordained. That is you, Kieron continually says. A mantra. A belief. A talisman. A prayer. “Who else is there” Kieron thinks. This thought is not punctuated as a question. Because it is not a question. He already knows the answer. There is no one else.
Ye got on the train in the morning, it was like a journey into a horrible dream, ye saw these pictures about other planets. Maybe there was nothing there except a cold landscape, all stones and desert and a dark sky or else scarlet red and brown. Everybody’s breath comes out like steam, the are waiting for the train and it is freezing cold. And what will happen what will happen maybe if ye could just disappear for ever and wake up on a sunny beach and just go in for a swim and the water is just clean and light so ye can see all the fish and the coral reefs. Then if ye did come back it is a year later and it would all be over or if ye are standing there, a year just flashed by like a second and ye are shivering away and cannot stop and then the train is crowded full, all people going to school or their work and everybody is there all pushing to get onto the platform, maybe a woman with a pram and a wee baby inside, and she cannot get the pram up onto the step, the wee baby looking about, eyes popping and everybody all crushing and ye get carried this way or that, yer school bag getting twisted, and what will happen, maybe the Fates are going to do something like from history in the ancient days there was all Gods watching ye puny beings, all laughing to see ye falling about, then sticking stuff in yer road so ye might trip up or even setting down a wild beast, ye turn a corner and out jumps a crocodile, so that is yer Fate unless ye can do something about it, if ye have a knife in yer belt then ye can kill it, plunge it down between its shoulders. Ye jump on top of its back and plunge it right in between its shoulders. Ye have to do it and ye cannot miss because ye only get the one chance and if ye do not take it that is you. Because that is yer Fate, that is what lies in store for ye and ye have to deal with it, nobody else will. Who else is there. Even if there are big sentry lions sitting at the gates and if ye want to get through ye have to pass them, huge big lions, a pack of them, or else a dragon from history guarding the temples, so ye have to pass through, and just keep walking, do not stop, do not stop, the dragons are watching ye, do not stop, not stop. This is yer Fate and ye have to go through the gate, even if the dragons are there, because if ye stop ye will never get through.
And nobody can help. It is you and only you. Who else could it be? Because it is your fate and then that is you and just tough luck. Everybody has their own. Some have it better than others. But if it is yours it is yours and nobody is going to change it.
People cannot fight yer battles for ye, no yer individual ones.
Kelman’s is an uncompromising vision, crafted perfectly. While I very much admire what he has done here, it’s not a book I’d recommend. Inside the head of Kieron Smith is not a place where I’d want to spend much time. And you probably wouldn’t want to either.