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J. Douglas Macarthur, Claiming Your Portion of Space: A Study of the Short Stories of James Kelman

Tokyo: Hokuseido, 2007

205 pp., ISBN: 978-4-590-01220-9, JPY 2,000


Reviewed by Iain Lambert


With the publication of Claiming Your Portion of Space, J. Douglas Macarthur has rendered a great service to the international community of Kelman scholars. Claiming … not only marks the first book-length assessment of Kelman’s short stories, but also approaches what is a relatively neglected aspect of his oeuvre from a number of fresh angles, while also adding greatly to the bibliography of resources on and interviews with the author. In recent years two books on Kelman have devoted a limited amount of space to his short stories. H. Gustav Klaus’s 2004 work[1] devotes a chapter to the early short stories (chapter two, 19 pages) and another to Greyhound for Breakfast and The Burn (chapter five, 12 pages), while Simon Kövesi[2]] merely alludes to the short stories in order to back up or develop points about Kelman’s novels, which form the chapter structure for his book. Thus Macarthur’s book fills a considerable hole in the body of critical literature on Kelman by virtue of its scope, but this is far from the whole story. It also opens up new avenues of comparison and suggests new approaches to his short fiction at a time when Kelman’s latest novel, Kieron Smith, boy [3], can be said to mine his previous work to a considerable degree.

The book is divided into seven sections. In the first, a general introduction is followed by an attempt to link Kelman to the Realist and Modernist traditions and a consideration of those aspects of the short story which make it a particularly suitable vehicle for him. In the next section, entitled Narrative Forms, the author looks at the political choices underlying Kelman’s style, while language issues are discussed in the third section. Although some readers may feel that, for example, Macarthur’s discussion of Kelman’s use of free indirect speech (p. 32ff) covers ground that has already been well-trodden, it is undeniable that the thoroughness of research evident in each section helps to lay the foundations for the remainder of the book. The pages dealing with the ground-level perspective of his characters (p. 43ff) or his use of taboo language (p. 75ff) or register (p. 85ff) are good examples of this. Of particular interest here is Macarthur’s analysis of the very short pieces which characterise Kelman’s stories in the early 1980s (p. 57ff), on which he posits an influence from a collection of Japanese and French prose poetry Kelman reviewed for Cencrastus in 1981. Macarthur has the makings of a strong case here, and it would have been interesting to read more than the solitary page he devotes to it, especially given his position as a long-term resident of Japan and thus presumably having a degree of familiarity with at least some of the writers involved. For example (p. 65) he notes that Kelman drew attention in his review to a prose poem by Minoru Yoshioka and speculates that its relative lack of punctuation may have had an influence on his developing style, yet there is no quote to exemplify this.

Section Four, titled 'Community and Place', begins by situating Kelman within a tradition of Scottish urban literature, but soon moves on to broaden the definition of 'communities' with an insightful study of how the family is portrayed in the short stories, in particular through the eyes of the younger characters (p. 98 & p. 107ff). This is of course a device which could be said to prefigure Kieron Smith, boy and readers with an interest in this particular novel would do well to consult Macarthur here. Macarthur also discusses transient communities such as seasonal or temporary workers and looks at gender relationships in some detail (pp. 100-107), charting a progression in Kelman’s treatment of female characters. Again, it is more satisfying to see an extended discussion of these issues compared to the rather rushed coverage of the same themes in Klaus.[4]

Section Five, 'The Philosophical Aspect', looks at Kelman and existentialism. As before, the chapter begins with what may seem to some to be a redundant overview of the basics of existentialism, but this is again handled well by the author and allows links to be drawn later in the chapter with Kelman’s own work. Familiar touchstones of Kelman criticism (Dostoevsky, Kafka and Beckett) are brought into the mix, but are referred to sparingly. Section six deals briefly with one of Kelman’s more recent novels (as it presumably was to Macarthur at the time of writing), You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free.[5] Macarthur’s purpose here is not to give any critical reading of the book, but to explore some examples of how the techniques he has described in Kelman’s short fiction are extended in the longer form. It is highly instructive to read this section in the knowledge that it was written before the publication of Kieron Smith, boy, which is if anything even more of an extension of Kelman’s short fiction as it borrows several episodes, not to mention techniques, from his canon. Once again, in this section Macarthur brings in a new point of comparison by returning to the writings of Georg Büchner (mentioned in the chapter on 'Narrative Forms'), specifically Woyzeck, and the discussion of You Have to be Careful … in terms of sense of place/location and the idea of the labyrinth is one which is crying out to be picked up on and followed by someone else. Despite the avowed remit of the book it is rather disappointing that no attempt was made to apply a similar analysis to Translated Accounts [6], a novel (as Kelman pointedly states in its subtitle) which functions more like a collection of short stories [7] and shares many of the same characteristics of his short fiction that Macarthur draws our attention to here.

One of the great strengths of Macarthur’s book lies in its focus on Kelman’s own words as a jumping-off point. Quotes from lesser known interviews given to publications such as The Scottish Trade Union Review or Big Issue Scotland pepper the text and are flagged with (thankfully) succinct footnotes. In addition, as is also true of Klaus [8], Macarthur is not afraid to deal with contradictions in Kelman’s writing. In his discussion of the short story 'Acid', for example (p. 63-64), after noting that Kelman has recorded the story for an AK Press CD collection and that Alasdair Gray incorporated it into Lanark, which presupposes that both writers think highly of the story, he goes on to dismiss it as nothing more than the recycling of an urban myth.

On the whole the book is suitable for readers who are relatively unfamiliar with Kelman’s work, coming at his oeuvre as it does through the introduction with its connections made to the American Realist and Modernist traditions. Equally, those who are well aware of his influences and concerns will be glad to find a number of fresh approaches. In addition to the Japanese connection mentioned above, Macarthur often delves into the visual realm for comparison with what Kelman is trying to achieve, invoking photographers such as Walker Evans (p. 29) or filmmakers like Frederick Wiseman (p. 30). This certainly seems a more satisfying approach than Klaus’s rather facile comparison with Ken Loach’s Riff Raff [9]. The book concludes with a 32-page bibliography (compared with five pages in Klaus and twelve in Kövesi) divided into Kelman’s short stories, novels, drama, non-fiction writing and recordings, followed by a list of books and articles which refer to Kelman and a section named 'background reading', which encompasses the many and disparate texts Macarthur has drawn on. It is unfortunate that the book obviously went to the publisher too late to include Klaus’ book on Kelman, and the fact that there is nothing in the bibliography after 2004 suggests that this book was a long time with the publisher. Apart from Kövesi’s book there is much that could be usefully added to a second edition, such as the chapter on Kelman in Michael Gardiner’s From Trocchi to Trainspotting,[10] however the wealth of lesser-known resources makes up for this, and anyone with a serious critical interest in James Kelman will undoubtedly want Claiming … on their shelf for the bibliographical material alone.



[1] H. Gustav Klaus, James Kelman (Horndon: Northcote House, 2004)
[2] Simon Kövesi, James Kelman (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007)
[3] James Kelman, Kieron Smith, boy (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2008)
[4] Klaus, pp. 67, 71.
[5] James Kelman, You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free (Orlando: Harcourt Books, 2004)
[6] James Kelman, Translated Accounts (New York: Doubleday, 2001)
[7] Kövesi, p. 171.
[8] Klaus, pp. 60-61 on 'And the judges said..'
[9] Klaus, p. 77.
[10] Michael Gardiner, From Trocchi to Trainspotting: Scottish critical theory since 1960 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006)