Andrew O’Hagan

Fathers and Genius

simpsonc04pic2.jpg A trinity of ordinary Glasgow folk rise off the ground and into the clouds one dull spring day. This extraordinary event infuses Chris Dolan’s first novel, Ascension Day, with a sense of how the sacred in people’s lives allows them to transcend and make sense of their individual existences. Chris Dolan weaves three separate stories to become more than the sum of their parts: the ramifications of Grace’s long ago affair with William extend to affect the novel’s other characters; Cannibal’s initial dalliance with crime throws his life into a spiral of self destruction; Paris, dying of cancer in a hospital ward, creates her own world to escape her confinement. Grace’s daughter, Morag is the catalyst who binds the characters together in a city they can all inhabit.

William has a mathematical project to explain the city: How he says, can you feel part of what doesn’t exist? Each of Dolan’s characters interprets the city to satisfy their inner needs; a city is not one simple construct but the convergence of its inhabitants’ ideas. Dolan throws a gentler, more revealing light on Glasgow than its usual literary luminaries.

simpsonc04pic1.jpg Andrew O’Hagan’s first novel, Our Fathers, shortlisted for the Booker this year, paints a different, more public picture of Glasgow. Jamie travels up from England to be with his grandfather, Hugh Bawn, Glasgow’s Mr. Housing, who is dying in one of the18th floor flats he built. While in the past Hugh raised houses to the sky with municipal idealism, Jamie is today engaged in their demolition. They are men of different generations with different dreams. Jamie returns initially to challenge his grandfather’s outdated notions, but finds himself listening and learning to blend elements of past and present into a more integrated future.

It is the story of a time of transition on the West Coast: of changing politics and ideals, of Old and New Labour, of religion and drink, of family dispute and reconciliation; above all, it is about where past and present meet and find absolution.

Deep Probing, the Autobiography of a Genius, is set further West still in Ireland. It is the tale of one Fiachra MacFiach, without doubt Ireland’s greatest living genius. The genius’s self-absorption knows no bounds. His publication redefines slim. He is ruthless in his pursuit of literary genius, leaving all who cross his path to pay a terrible price. There are many wonderful laugh-aloud, comic moments but like any one so self centred, ultimately Fiachra becomes a bit of a bore.

Dilys Rose’s novel, Pest Maiden, has blood as its theme. Blood, its hero, Russell Fairley ruminates, picked you out, nailed you down…Blood was the ultimate witness. The novel is set in a blood-processing plant, which serves as a background to a rapidly escalating series of events.

As the novel opens, Russell Fairley, dumped by his girlfriend, struck down by flu, believing himself to be unfavourably depicted as a character in his ex girlfriend’s new lover’s book, becomes caught up in his own personal nightmare, no less powerful whether real or imagined. Rose’s characters inhabit the space between reality and paranoia; wonderfully strange and understated they nonetheless fail to engage our sympathy.

Once again, Shorts, the Macallan, Scotland on Sunday Short Story Collection, brings together the best of short story writing from around Scotland. Writers, male and female, of all ages, from the length and breadth of Scotland are represented. The subject matter is as multifarious as the authors are. Their only unity is in their diversity.

Ascension Day, Chris Dolan, Headline Books, pbk, 215pp, £9.99. ISBN 0 7472 7545 9.

Our Fathers, Andrew O’Hagan, Faber and Faber, hbk, 281pp, £16.99. ISBN 0 571 19502 4.

Deep Probings, The Autobiography of a Genius, Ian MacPherson, Argyll Publishing, pbk, 183pp, £9.99. ISBN 1 902831 09 8.

Pest Maiden, Dilys Rose, Headline Books, pbk, 212pp, £9.99. ISBN 0 7472 7302 2.

Shorts, the Macallan, Scotland on Sunday Short Story Collection, edited by Candia McWilliam, Polygon, pbk, 246pp, £6.99. ISBN 0 7486 6268 5.

Copyright Clare Simpson 2005.