James v. James

Now that everyone knows James Salter, Terry Doody has a new candidate for best undiscovered author

By Terrence Doody May 8, 2013


Final exam question: Who's the best writer you’ve never heard of?

It’s not James Salter any more but the Scottish author James Kelman, who won the 1994 Man Booker Prize, and whose new novel is Mo Said She Was Quirky. “She” is Helen, who has moved to London from Glasgow, works in a casino, and lives with her daughter, and “Mo” is a kind man she loves. His full name is probably Mohammed, but Helen is a bit unclear if he is Indian or Pakistani. There is not much of a narrator here and no clear exposition. 

The book reads like Helen’s interior monologue over the course of 300 pages and a single day. In many passages, Kelman actually seems to be addressing Helen, rather than the reader, explaining her to herself.  “Sad thoughts, sadness about the thoughts; the thoughts were not sad in themselves, the sadness was from thinking about them, their lives, their lives were just poor, poor lives, the casino too and the people she saw . . .  night after night after night . . .. some horrible, just horrible, horrible people and all their horrible attitudes. . . “

Life is mean, nasty, brutish, and inescapable for Helen. Men are always a mystery and a threat. Kelman’s gift is his limitless compassion for her and the fullness of his understanding—like Faulkner ‘s for the Bundren family in As I Lay Dying. Still, nothing much seems to happen for her until, for some reason, it suddenly does. “Yet she knew she would do something. . . She knew it then. He mind had, without her knowing. She had decided. . . . Her mind had done it for her.”

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