Book Review: Republics of the Mind by James Robertson

This review first appeared on The Bottle Imp website, published by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies (ASLS). It is edited and produced by Gwen Enstam, ASLS’s International Project Developer, and Duncan Jones,  ASLS’s Director.

It’s no easy task to produce twenty-two short stories of startling diversity and successfully unite them by a select handful of themes, but in Republics of the Mind James Robertson does just that. Whether the stories here are set in a decaying Scottish safari park or a graveyard, a South Dakota reservation or an abandoned mental hospital,  Robertson continuously returns to the same group of dilemmas: entrapment and the wish to escape, inertia, nightmarish visions of the present and future, existential crises,  mortality and, throughout it all, fear. Robertson’s gritty, realistic style and evocations of Scottish working-class life have earned him comparisons with the likes of Irvine  Welsh and James Kelman, but is it when he enters into the realms of the nightmarish and surreal that his explorations of certain ideas are at their most vivid and compelling?

Many of the characters here are trapped in some way, united by their inability or unwillingness to free themselves from their fate. In ‘Giraffe’, Jimmy and Dave are sent to  clean up a run-down safari park’s ‘meat-room’, opening the door to find the room heaving with maggots and cockroaches, rank with decomposing flesh and oozing black blood.  There isn’t much else they can do but clean it; they’re poor and need their jobs: ‘That was it really. They were stuck. They didn’t have great prospects in front of them.  They had to take what they were given.’ They are just like the animals in the safari park: trapped and surrounded by decay. Poverty has entrenched them.

Likewise in ‘The Jonah’, Billy tries to make a better life for himself but is burdened with his immoral, womanising friend Sean, as well as by the poverty that  restricts his movements. Hitch-hiking with his irksome friend, the pair briefly splits up, and Billy is given a chance to take a lift and part ways with Sean. A thousand things race through his head as he decides whether to accept the lift or refuse it: ‘This was all in a moment. A moment like all these moments in his life when he felt he was  being tossed like a coin. For a moment the chances hang spinning in the air, and then you call.’ Chance does play a role in our lives, but so does the act of making choices,  and in liberating himself from his friend we hope Billy has finally found some semblance of emancipation.

In the titular story, a couple rail against the new government, disgusted that Scotland is represented by such corrupt and detached politicians. They discover a mental  state which seems to remove them from the strife their country is experiencing: ‘It was a state of being in which all the people understood themselves, and what they were doing, and why they were where they were.’ Is this their mode of dealing with their own sense of powerlessness, a way to find inner peace, purpose and contentment? Or are they just  running away from reality? Is their method of escape not really an escape at all?

In ‘Don’t Start Me Talkin’ (I’ll Tell You Everything I Know)’, a housewife seeks escapism from her mundane life. She is a slave to schedule and wants to experience energy and life, to finally feel something. She visits a record shop and listens to the blues, music ‘unlike anything she’d heard’, and this offers her a momentary escape. The young man in the store who introduces her to this exotic music feels similarly trapped, though by the very opposite of what traps the housewife: there is no one waiting for him back home, and the excess of freedom is oppressive.

‘Willie Masson’s Miracle’ reveals the plight of the elderly, the poor souls who are mentally fit and healthy but whose sound minds are trapped inside bodies that are  failing them. Willie’s arm is paralysed, but as he is being severely patronised by a home help he manages to summon up some unknown force to exact his revenge: ‘…he was amazed  to see his hand flip up and catch the wifie a neat wee skelp with the knuckles right on the end of her nose.’ In this he finds a brief respite from being babied and misunderstood, a brilliant act of defiance.

This sense of entrapment bleeds into the feeling of inertia that plagues so many of the characters here. In ‘Screen Lives’ Shona plucks at her loose skin, ‘…filled with a terrible dread of being old, of not having done all these things.’ She fears wasting her life but can’t seem to summon the courage to do anything about it. Likewise in ‘The Dayshift’, a nameless man runs through the motions of his dull job and repetitive home life, his stultifying routine devoid of diversity or spontaneity. He muses on ‘the ten-minute walk  that he would make to his house where his wife would be in the kitchen. The smell of soup. Always the same smell, always the same soup.’ He is well aware his life is humdrum  and monotonous but doesn’t do a thing about it. Though Dean is only twenty-five in ‘The Future According to Luke’, he feels ‘like he wasn’t fully alive, like somebody had reached in and taken some vital organ out of his body while he was sleeping.’ He wants anything to happen, even something bad, just to lift him out of his ennui.

Fear of time running out intensifies in ‘The Claw’, a story about a young man who visits his grandfather in an old folks’ home. He sees that his grandfather is ‘caught between history and hope, but history weighs heavy in his scales now, and every year it gobbles up hope.’ The young man’s dismay at his grandfather’s failing body — particularly his  arthritic ‘claw’ — is made particularly wrenching when we discover that the young man is HIV-positive, that he is terrified of decaying like his grandfather. The old man’s predicament is a horrible premonition of what his own will be. Similarly, the poor soul sitting on the toilet in ‘Facing It’ looks at the blood in the bowl and feels like  ‘everything has failed him, he knew it was all coming apart in there…’ He does not want to face the road to death — his family’s distress, doctors, hospitals — and instead wants to just walk into the hills and die. These men’s dread of time passing is not just a symbol of their inertia but a terrible fear of a more imminent threat.

If these real life events are nightmarish then they are nothing compared to the surreal events of ‘The Plagues’, ‘Pretending to Sleep’, ‘The Dictionary’, ‘The Rock Cake Incident’, ‘MacTaggart’s Shed’, and ‘Sixes and Sevens’. These six tales mark Robertson out from the usual comparisons with the gritty realistic style of Kelman and the like. True,  Robertson’s stories are filled with the stuff of real life, but his ghoulish flights of fancy are arguably the most memorable tales of this collection.

‘The Plagues’ sees a man’s apartment overrun with a biblical swarm of frogs, seemingly a manifestation of his depression. The ominous last line is like something straight  out of a horror film. In the sci-fi-esque ‘Pretending to Sleep’ people start lying down in the middle of the street for no known reason, and in ‘The Dictionary’ letters spill  out in all directions from the titular tome, a staunchly reliable thing made unreliable and perplexing. ‘The Rock Cake Incident’ has a Hitchcockian atmosphere (including an  intensely creepy dentist), and portrays normal things as unsettling and frightening, ultimately unknowable.

The most disquieting story is surely ‘MacTaggart’s Shed’, set in a future dystopian version of Scotland where ethnic cleansing occurs. Whether the events of people being  herded into a shed to be executed are real or imagined is uncertain. The man who witnesses these events, Chrissie, is certainly told that he’s dreamed it up: ‘Ye’ve been watchin  too much shite on the telly. Aw these news programmes ye watch, the documentaries and aw that. That aw happens somewhere else. Other countries. No here. Ye’re away wi the fairies.’

In ‘Sixes and Sevens’ we find an equally unsettling read, during which the reader doesn’t know quite what to think. This too has a Hitchcockian feel, set in an abandoned  mental hospital and focussing on a man who may be a visitor and may be a patient. The man’s grandfather lived here during the war, blighted by shellshock, and it is deliberately  unclear if he is visited by his spirit or if he is time-tripping, or if perhaps he himself is a ghost. At one point the man turns to see that the armchairs have ‘all crept a little  closer to the fireplace’, an event which would seem well at home in a ghost story.

Republics of the Mind is an altogether fascinating and unsettling read, expertly crafted to lead the reader direct into the psyches of a host of characters placed in situations ranging from the familiar to the preternatural. The dialogue is spot-on (Robertson has a particular knack for transcribing Scottish dialects) and each story  is shot through with a tangible sense of time and place, even when the action strays into the eerie and unknown. It’s an eclectic collection of tales, given a strong sense  of structure by Robertson’s encompassing themes, and is sure to provoke as much thought as it deserves admiration.

Jacqueline Thompson Creative Writing PhD student The University of Edinburgh

Republics of the Mind by James Robertson is published by Black and White, 2012.

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