1982, Janine by Alasdair Gray

Hi, everybody. It’s Dave again. No worries, though. Kim will be back the next two weeks. Anyway, on to the book for this week.

I’ve run into a lot of books I was previously unfamiliar with in reading for this blog…but I wasn’t expecting 1982, Janine by Alasdair Gray. I read the description and still didn’t quite get it, though the description didn’t convey much of the book as far as I was concerned. I was taken a bit by surprise to find a novel entirely contained within the thoughts of an aging alcoholic with a messed up life alternating between sadomasochistic fantasies and life introspection in a cheap Scottish motel room:

And I have placed this last bit of dialogue very carefully. Later, when Janine is trapped and trying to escape, she will remember that she was given a chance to leave and refused because of money. We all have a moment when the road forks and we take the wrong turning. Mine was when Helen told me she was pregnant and I said I needed a week and later the doorbell rang and, forget it, I opened the door and Mr Hume and his two sons walked straight past me and, forget it, stood in the middle of my own room, yes, my own room and FORGET IT. FORGET IT.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 2nd for Madison Smartt Bell)

Yes, Jock McLeish is a nearing fifty drunk in a motel room out on the road where he supervises installation of security systems. His loves have crumbled over the years and he is lonely and unhappy. He drinks and fantasizes about women trapped against their will in humiliating and dangerous nonconsensual sexual situations. During this, sad memories of what has gone wrong in his life intrude.

The fantasies occupy much of the book at first, but more and more time is devoted to the sad things that Jock did in his life and things that were done to him. This began to humanize him for me and make me understand the fantasies more, though my reaction to the fantasies was still much more revulsion than titillation. Just how I respond personally to that kind of fantasy.

But there was a passage in particular that changed my reaction quite a bit:

I could not disagree. If I had not completely forgotten Obby Pobbly I wanted to forget him for I had started telling myself stories about a very free attractive greedy woman who, confident in her powers, begins an exciting adventure and finds she is not free at all but completely at the disposal of others. As I aged that story grew very elaborate. The woman is corrupted into enjoying her bondage and trapping others into it. I did not notice that this was the story of my own life. I avoided doing so by insisting on the femaleness of the main character. The parts of the story which came to excite me most were not the physical humiliations but the moment when the trap starts closing and the victim feels the torture of being in two minds: wanting to believe, struggling to believe, that what is happening cannot be happening, can only happen to someone else. And I was right to be excited by that moment because it is the moment when, with courage, we change things. Why should Janine feel helpless when she realizes Max has lied to her and is abducting her? He is driving a fast car along a motorway, his hands are occupied, if she removes on of her ridiculous shoes and threatens his eye with the heel he will certainly stop or change direction if he sees she is serious. But she is not used to acting boldly, she finds it easier to pretend Max is honest and decent, hoping her act will make him more so, and thus he drives her into the mire. My fancies keep reliving that moment of torture for Janine because I have never fully faced it in my own life and I am travelling in a circle again.

So, as you can see, 1982, Janine isn’t really about titillation or atrocities on other human beings. It’s more complicated. I still found much unsettling, but we get nowhere in life if we avoid works because they are unsettling. There is something being said here that needs to be heard over the stories of violation.

There are some interesting aspects to this book from a purely prose standpoint as well: meta-fiction, typographic manipulation, and other experimental techniques work in from time to time. However, there is only so much. For the most part, 1982, Janine is a strangely structured but mostly traditional narrative.

I found 1982, Janine to be an interesting mix of the disturbing and the mundane, the traditional and the experimental. There was a lot that pushed me a way and a lot that pulled at me, all adding up to a curious book. I’m still not sure quite how I feel about 1982, Janine as a whole, but it was well worth the read and more quietly human than I expected.

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