Review: Contemporary Scottish Gothic: Mourning, Authenticity, and Tradition

Posted by Alexandra Campbell on February 06, 2015 in Alexandra Campbell tagged with , , , , , , ,

Contemporary Scottish Gothic: Mourning, Authenticity, and Tradition 

By Timothy Baker

 9781137457196In 2001 Edinburgh University’s Polygon Press released a collection of short stories entitled Damage Land: New Scottish Gothic Fiction, bringing together stories from influential writers such as Ali Smith, Jackie Kay, John Burnside and Janice Galloway. Published barely three years after the establishment of a devolved Scottish Parliament in 1998 and appearing in the first breaths of the new millennium, the collection has been key in highlighting the pervasive nature of Gothic creative writing in Scotland. The critical landscape of Scottish Gothic has thus far not been as fruitful. Extended studies into Scottish Gothic fiction are few and far between, mostly emerging in special Journal issues (see Gothic Studies Vol 13.2, 2011) or small book chapters (see Germaná, 2010; Macdonald, 2011;  Morace, 2013; Punter, 2002). Across five brilliant chapters Timothy Baker works to draw out the gothic elements of contemporary writers from the well-known (Alasdair Gray, A.L Kennedy, Ian Banks and John Burnside) to newer voices such as Andrew Crumey, Morag Joss, and  Denise Mina. Baker’s new text Contemporary Scottish Gothic: Mourning, Authenticity, Tradition stands as the first book-length critical study of contemporary Scottish Gothic fiction and serves to nourish this otherwise barren critical landscape.

Part of the resistance to researching the ‘Contemporary Scottish Gothic’ is due to the contentious critical lexicon at play within this seemingly simple title: what constitutes the ‘Contemporary’? What makes a text ‘Scottish’? And the age old issue for any scholar of the supernatural, what on earth is Gothic? Baker’s introduction works to navigate the critical potholes inherent in each of these terms, acknowledging that ‘Just as recent criticism of Scottish literature has moved from a national, or even nationalist, model to a more cosmopolitan approach in recent years, so too does the project of isolating a uniquely Scottish Gothic now seem impossible.’ (15) If such a project is impossible ‘what then, is the critic who seeks to define or defend the notion of a contemporary Scottish Gothic to do?’ (15). The answer, it would seem, is to cast a wide thematic net ranging from doubles and divided selves, to haunting and spectral histories, troubling manuscripts, diverse landscapes, and most interestingly, mourning. Across 5 chapters Baker traces these multifaceted elements to interrogate assumed structures of canon and culture to reveal the asymmetric functioning of power at work in contemporary fiction and exposing the ‘impossibility of any binary oppositions or categorical determinants’ (166).

For Baker, Gothic is most productively considered when it is understood as a ‘tradition’, a word which has proven particularly problematic throughout the study of Scottish Literature since T.S Eliot’s declared in his 1919 response essay to G. Gregory Smyth’s Scottish Literature: Character and Influence, that Scottish fiction constitutes a ‘failed tradition’, even going so far as to title his essay ‘Was there a Scottish Literature?’. Before embarking upon a sophisticated consideration of the resonating intertextual presence of Walter Scott in contemporary fiction, Baker isolates the key moments in Gothic scholarship in which Scotland does indeed take centre stage. Small instances such as Nicholas Royle’s assertion that the Uncanny ‘comes from Scotland, from that “auld” country that has so often been represented as “beyond the borders,”’, or Derrida’s specific reference to Scottish manors when discussing haunting, are drawn together to indicate the prevalence of Scotland not just as the current home of the Gothic, but as its source. Chapter 1: A Scott-Haunted World, plays upon this configuration by drawing out the strands of ‘inauthenticity’ and ‘fictionality’ at work in instances of the spectral and the magical within Walter Scott’s oeuvre. In line with Derrida’s Hauntology, Scott and his work is traced across modern texts such as James Robertson’s Gideon Mack (2006) and is revealed to be a ‘central, defining figure, [who] always remains unknowable and unknown’ (31) whose haunting presence is akin to ‘a benevolent ghost who in his shaping of the past provides a perspective on the present’ (45). This first chapter, perhaps the least revolutionary of the five, helps to establish the book’s governing themes of authorship, authenticity, and textual determination. By questioning the concept of authenticity at play in ideas of authorship and authority, Baker highlights the power of reading as a formative process which questions the static nature of tradition and literary heritage.

The role of reading as a process, and questions of authenticity, carries over into Chapter 2: Authentic Inauthenticity, where Baker focuses his attention on the well-known Gothic trope of the found manuscript. Forgeries, fragments, and frames can be found across the history of Gothic fiction and prompt important questions regarding truth and knowledge within narratives. It is no different here for Baker. Taking Alasdair Gray’s  Poor Things (1992) and Louise Welsh’s The Cutting Room (2002) as exemplary texts, Baker notes how these Frankensteinian formations (and one must remember that Scotland plays its own important part in Shelley’s classic text) through their piecing together of fragmented narratives and intertextual truths point towards  the importance of ‘textual layering as a necessary path to authenticity’ (65).  For Baker the reader becomes an integral part of the narrative process, deciphering codes and clues buried within the textual frames. Gaps in understanding and history are filled in slowly but surely as the process of reading and storytelling becomes a journey of recovery and active remembrance.

Moving from the reader’s role in the formation of literary reality and identity, to the role of landscape in Chapter 3: Fantastic Islands, Baker explores the role of physical geography in the development of cultural memory. Playing with the dichotomies of island-mainland spatial relations, Baker once again astutely evokes the fluidity of the liminal, focusing attention on ‘the space between exile and belonging, between modes of expression and languages, and even between genres’ (91). The Gothic comes to operate in the moments ‘between’ ontological categories; destabilising binary positions and creating a literature that is continually in the process of ‘becoming’, rather than maintaining what has already ‘become’.  By directing attention to these spectral spaces, and haunted gaps and in highlighting a sense of ‘inbetweeness’ Baker is able to counteract the static totality of historical progression in which Scotland is invariably cast as a ‘purgatorial entity; a world of endless and appalling repetition; beyond narrative; beyond change; outside history’ (Craig, Out of History, 40). This dissolution of ontological categorisation appears to stem from Derrida’s work on Hauntology and his suggestion that the spectral rises ‘between two, and between all the “two’s” one likes, such as between life and death’ and it is thus ‘a paradoxical incorporation, the becoming-body, a certain phenomenal and carnal form of the spirit. It becomes, rather, some “thing” that remains difficult to name: neither soul nor body, and both one and the other’ (Derrida, Spectres of Marx, 6).

This ‘becoming-body’ is furthered in Chapter 4: Metamorphosis, in which Baker looks towards the blurred boundaries between the human and animal realms, enabling a productive reconsideration of the categories of self and other. Rather than prolonging the well-worn duality of Man vs. Beast, Baker moves towards the perspectives of Animal Studies in which animals are not merely seen as the other, but stretch the definitions of what it means to be human. Using Ian Banks’s The Wasp Factory (1984) and John Burnside’s Glister (2008) and The Locust Room (2001) Baker seeks to ‘rethink the human’ through our engagement with animal life, moving towards concepts of the inhuman as a means of destabilising assumed unities embedded in anthropocentric models of humanity. While the gaps between categories are a productive source of the liminal and the spectral for Baker, he is also conscious of the gap as a site of loss, absence and mourning. The concept of mourning winds its way through each page, giving overall shape and depth to the text. As Baker notes, history and tradition have always been troubling for Scottish and Gothic fiction respectively, where Scotland has continually addressed its  ‘own cultural terrain in terms of fault-lines, wounds to the body, [and] cracks to the psyche’ (Germaná, ‘The Sick Body and the Fractured Self’, 1), Mourning acts as the healing suture between the past and present. For Baker, these texts through their narratives and stories, actively engage with an act of remembrance, where through its unification of absence and presence ‘Mourning becomes a way to define the self and the nation in relation both to the past and the catastrophic present’ (19).

By exposing the inherent failings of a continued binary approach to both Gothic and Scottish texts, Baker allows for new and productive interpretations of Scottish Gothic to occur outside of the pathological diagnoses of divided selves, schizophrenics and amnesiacs. While texts such as James Hogg’s The Confessions of a Justified Sinner and R.L. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are acknowledged as important texts in the formation of both the literary and the scholarly imagination in Scottish con/texts, Baker is able to look beyond the current critical wasteland populated by nothing but doubles and doppelgangers, and turns his attention towards challenging such traditions of categorisation. This text looks towards the liminal, to the gaps between the human and animal, land and sea, past and present and questions the boundaries and borders which have for so long attempted to contain Scottish Gothic.

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