A most curious collection of semiautobiographical stories, from the veteran Scots author (the Whitbread-winner Poor Things, 1993; etc.) and graphic artist.
The tales feature different protagonists and narrators, but the dominant one is a long-married (sometimes divorced) male approaching old age, taking stock of his (disappointing) life, and drawing resentful contrasts between vigorous youth and enfeebled age. There are terse, flimsy vignettes like “Pillow Talk,” which portrays a husband trying to goad his wife into leaving him; a memory of “failures of common decency” that blighted a schoolboy’s childhood (“Sinkings”); and a description of a peace march (“15 February 2003”) that’s only an excuse for lambasting Bush-and-Blair’s Iraq policies. Several stories address the volume’s themes more directly, and resonant more strongly. “No Bluebeard” is a serial husband’s account of his failures with three spouses (“because I had been constantly mean and ungenerous, cold and calculating”)—and his compatible fourth marriage to a deranged woman, in flight from her controlling family, whose neediness binds him to her. “Job’s Skin Game’ presents the musings of a successful building contractor who loses his sons to the 9/11 disaster, alienates his grieving wife, then develops a pernicious disfiguring eczema—the physical symptoms of which excite and gratify his imagination. And in “Aiblins,” a poet and writing teacher recalls relationships with promising, and troublesome students: notably, an insufferably arrogant, demanding, and increasingly paranoid “genius.” This latter story is an especially insidiously persuasive expression of the vagaries of aging, failing, compromising, compensating, and surrendering that the best of these pieces memorably evoke. Readers unfamiliar with Gray may find them annoyingly self-indulgent and pallid. Those who know his work are likelier to accept them as quirky roughhewn fragments of an agreeably eccentric ongoing fictional autobiography.
Let Gray be Gray, and he won’t disappoint you.