Ten Tales Tall & True by Alasdair Gray

Back in 2014 I made the acquaintance of Alasdair Gray when I read his great magnum opus “Lanark”. A bit of a behemoth of a book, it kept me company during all sorts of adventures (including a long train and tube trip to Kew Gardens where I was travelling to read “Kew Gardens” by Virginia Woolf!). Reading “Lanark” was an immersive, magnificent experience and I considered myself a convert, picking up his other works when I came across them. However, I never actually got round to reading any of them, perhaps slightly nervous as to whether they’d pale in comparison. But news of his death just after Christmas saddened me, and so I searched the shelves for something of his to read before the end of the year – and “Ten Tales Tall & True” seemed like the perfect choice.

Gray changed the way Scottish writing was perceived with “Lanark”, and his writing style as well as the presentation of his books is particularly unique. He was a polymath, and his works are adorned with his own marvellous illustrations as well as little phrases at the side of each right hand page which kind of sum up what’s happening. Reflecting Gray’s wonderful idiosyncracies, “Ten Tales…” actually contains 14 pieces (if you include the introduction) and the author spells this out at the beginning, reminding us that even his title is a tall tale! The title page illustration also gives a hint at the kind of material inside, stating “Social Realism”, “Sexual Comedy”, “Science Fiction” and “Satire”. Well, you could apply those labels to some of the stories but Gray can never exactly be pinned down and it’s this elusiveness that I often love in his work.

So – on to specifics (always so difficult when reviewing short stories…) Gray’s writing works just as well for me in short form as it did in “Lanark”; his imagination is as wonderful as ever, his tales thought-provoking and their conclusions always unexpected. He’s particularly pithy on the complexities of human relationships, and several of the stories pinpoint the compromises we made to avoid loneliness. “YOU” is particularly harsh on the male/female, English/Scottish divide, and “Loss of the Golden Silence” discreetly dissects the differing perceptions of two protagonists in a relationship. Other stories, like “The Trendelburg Positon” and “Time Travel”, are more oblique, allowing Gray’s characters to muse on the state of the world, the meaning of life and the future. “Near the Driver” was a particular stand-out for me, looking at the consequences of handing too much control over to machines, and I rather felt that a lot of people who put their faith in technology nowadays could do with having a read of this!

An example of the inside layout of Gray’s books – I love this kind of thing! 😀

Gray also plays with the perceptions not only of his characters but of his readers. “A New World”, a very Kafkaesque kind of story, was all about perspectives and made me feel very claustrophobic; and “Fictional Exits” blurs the borders between the real and the imaginary in a very clever way. Lest this sounds a little heavy, all of these stories are immensely readable, often funny, littered with drops of Scots venacular and very, very entertaining.

“Ten Tales…” is a much shorter book than “Lanark”, and I read it in a day and absolutely loved it; but despite that relative slimness, it holds much that lingers in the mind. Looking back over it while I wrote this post, I was reminded what a truly individual voice Gray had and how important a writer he is. I wish I’d returned to Alasdair Gray’s work before now, although I do think it was necessary to have a break between “Lanark” and anything else of his. Fortunately, I have at least one other Gray on the shelves so I can make sure I don’t leave it so long before I read him again!

Grant has done a wonderful post on Gray and “Lanark” here which I do recommend reading.