When James Kelman”s novel How Late it Was, How Late won the Booker prize in 1994, it caused a storm of critical and popular debate. This debate still continues to revolve around books such as Irving Welsh”s Trainspotting, which are seen as continuing the style of foul-mouthed Scottish prose. At the time of its publication, reviewers concerned themselves with counting the number of times that the word “fuck” was used in the book, rather than trying to detect any worth within its socially conscious portrayal of a life in the deprived areas of Glasgow.
When reviewers did actually look at the book as a whole, it was either taken as a piece of gritty realism, a social commentary on the sad state of life in Glasgow, or as an interior monologue in the stream-of-consciousness style. However, on closer reading, it appears that Kelman has merged these styles rather than use one to the exclusion of the others. “… -he could maybe see Tam; Sammy had some gear in the house, he needed a punter. But it didnay matter about that, no the now.Order now
He just christ almighty he just had to be doing something he just had to be doing something it was straightforward, that was all it was, it was fuck all he just had to be actually fucking moving, cause there was things to do, he couldnay sit about, cause things have a habit of closing in on ye, when ye least expect them, they close in on ye, so ye have top be ready, even if ye arenay, if ye”re fuckt, if yer body”s fuckt, So okay. Okay Sammy was up from the settee and he switched off the radio.
It didnay help matters, that stupit bastard and his fucking stupid fucking quiz show, all these stupid easy questions that nay cunt seemed to have a clue about. Oh jesus christ Helen. Sammy”s hand was on his forehead. He felt bad. He felt fucking awful man. It wasnay things closing in on him, cause it had already happened, it had happened, they had fucking closed in. He was beat. They had beat him. It wasnay his body. His fucking body man it wasnay his fucking body. It wasnay his body. He gave a kind of shudder, then groped his way to the window and opened it.
It wasnay raining; it didnay seem to be. There was a smell; a funny kind of smell. Jesus. It was him. Probably it was him. He hadnay had a real wash since fuck knows when. He was clatty as fuck… ” pp 74-75 At first glance, this passage seems to be of a rambling derivative of the stream-of-consciousness style: the third person narration mixes in with some internal monologue. However, it is not truly “stream-of-consciousness”, since the thoughts which can be organised around a central concern are separated from other groups of thoughts by the insertion of third person narration.
This splices the thoughts into digestible pieces, which are taken more in seclusion, as separate areas of thought, than “stream-of-consciousness” might allow. By skipping between third person narrative style and interior monologue, Kelman provides not only a sense of Sammy”s situation from the inside, but also from the outside. This does not limit the reader”s experience to Sammy”s consciousness only, nor to an exterior view exclusively. By mixing the two, Kelman is able to present the reader with a more complete portrait of Sammy”s situation.
As a book about a man who becomes blind, the writing is necessarily short on physical detail, which draws attention to the interior, and the experience of Sammy”s blindness. However, the experience of this is loaded to lean towards Sammy, but not at the cost of a complete absence of the exterior. Where the direction of Sammy”s thoughts changes, it is indicated by an abrupt end to a paragraph, which is not even indicated by a full stop. This not only speeds up the flow of the text, but creates more or a contrast between thoughts.
For example, Kelman writes “He just / christ almighty”, which is a disconcertingly sudden switch between thoughts. Had this been written with a full stop, or more standard indication of change in thoughts, between the paragraphs i. e. “He just… christ almighty” then it would be more comfortable. Perhaps the strength of the interior monologue here depends on its restless and flowing quality. The overall impression of “stream-of-consciousness” style is given not only by the large amount of interior monologue which is inserted into the narration, but also through the lack of full stops at the end of certain paragraphs.
This gives the text the feeling of being a rush of words without any consistent thought to organisation of presentation, such as one would expect from direct speech, or an attempt at recreating the interior dialogue as “realistically” as possible. Thus there are two ways of interpretation that could be applied to this: Kelman could be attempting to make the text more realistic as a portrayal of interior monologue, or to give the impression that Sammy”s thoughts are in a state of disorganised panic.
The two are not mutually exclusive, of course, the later being another way of emphasising the former. The main debate around Kelman”s writing, perhaps unfairly, centres around the prolific use of expletives such as “fuck” or “cunt. ” It is necessary, perhaps, to point out that it is not the narrator of the third person who uses expletives, but only Sammy, which may be justified by asserting that Kelman is attempting a sort of hyper-realism in his portrayal of his protagonist.
We could see the use of swear-words as an indication of Sammy”s lack of verbal coherence, often being mere substitutions for other words, becoming general indicators in the place of more specific definitions, for example: “If you”re fuckt, if yer body”s fuckt. ” “Fuckt” here refers to no specific condition of the body, but of a general and undefined sense of being strongly in a bad way. A radio personality is referred to as a “stupit bastard”, a description which doesn”t provide any mental picture of said personality, but rather centres upon the sensations which he provokes within Sammy.
Expletives also contain an element of strong anger in their hard ending sounds. Thus, Sammy”s use of swear words like “fuck” shows his anger against his situation, which has no outlet but into words, since Sammy is made quite powerless to act against the system. Kelman uses repetition in a number of ways. Primarily, the repetition although modulated through slight changes of phrases such as “It wasnay his body. His fucking body man it wasnay his fucking body. It wasnay his body” draws our attention to the limit of Sammy”s despair.
He repeats the phrase to himself as though trying to convince himself of it, before his body gives “a kind of shudder”, and brings him back into the reality of his situation. Sammy never allows himself to give in to this kind of surrender to the hopelessness of his situation, which helps to make him a more sympathetic character. This is a sort of denial which is familiar to the reader, and helps to emphasise Sammy”s humanity, which in turn indears him more to the reader. Secondly, there is a kind of emptiness in this repetition, like the emphasised lack of meaning in a Warhol print.
Again, this has the effect of reiterating the bleakness of Sammy”s situation, making his struggle against his unfortunate fate seem more valiant. The lack of physical detail in the third person narrative descriptions in the books helps to reinstate the problems of Sammy”s blindness. When Kelman writes “It wasnay raining; it didnay seem to be” he is including a fair amount of uncertainty into the text which would not be reasonable in a book where the protagonist wasn”t blind.
Here, however, it reminds us yet again of Sammy”s situation. Either it is raining, or it is not: but Sammy can”t tell. It is through these tiny details of Sammy”s condition that we gain more compassion for him. The book as a whole is curiously life-affirming. Sammy has our sympathy for becoming blind, but once he starts alienating people all around, swearing at doctors and generally refusing to co-operate with anyone even Ally, who seems perfectly trustworthy and honest, he proves infuriatingly frustrating.
Strangely, however, the end of the book ends on a note of curious optimism, even though we are sure that Sammy is going to find things no easier in London than he has in Glasgow. This possibly lies in the way in which he is depicted as stepping out of the picture, just getting “out of sight” 374, as though this is a kind of release or freedom. There is also a kind of strength that can be drawn from Sammy”s resilience and strength against the desperate odds. He doesn”t defeat these odds, of course, which makes him a strangely human character as he continues to battle and rage even though his situation is pretty hopeless.
No doubt our compassion for and connection with Sammy is mainly established by the use of interior monologue as outlined above. However, the use of the third person narrative also means that we have, perhaps, a better view of what is going on that if we only had Sammy”s word for it. Instinctively, perhaps, he is not a narrator which one might be inclined to trust exactly, and the addition of an omni-present narrator who backs up Sammy”s statements of fact reassures our trust in him.