If it is Your Life by James Kelman

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If it is Your Life by James Kelman

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Category: Short Stories
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: A collection of nineteen pieces of creative writing that subvert conventional styles that are sometimes funny, often sad, undoubtedly clever, definitely observant, but frequently annoying. Highly stylised, Kelman is like Beckett or modern art - you will either get it or you won't - but should books make you work this hard?
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 288 Date: April 2010
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0241142424

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If This Is Your Life is not so much a collection of short stories as a collection of pieces of creative writing. Kelman doesn't really do 'stories'. In nineteen pieces of writing of varying length from just a single page to more lengthy pieces, such as the story that gives its title to this collection, Kelman writes (mostly) about people on the edge of society. He addresses issues such as class, politics, gender, age and ill health.

Kelman, who won the Booker Prize in 1994 for his novel How Late It Was, How Late, has long been a writer that divides opinion. His Booker winning book was infamous for the frequency of use of 'the f-word' and Simon Jenkins once described him in The Times as an 'illiterate savage'. For others, Kelman is a working class intellectual who writes about people struggling against various types of oppression, with a calculating subversion of the English language and a disregard for convention. I tend to veer more towards the latter view, but that doesn't mean you have to like the result.

Reading If This Is Your Life is rather like reading the collected dramatic works of Samuel Beckett. There are moments of dark humour, moments that work in a way that other writers don't achieve, but equally, there are frequent moments where the reader is left thinking 'huh?'. Some of it reveals richer depth when you think about it afterwards rather than the immediate effect of reading it on the page, but perhaps life's too short to have to work that hard with a piece of writing. Kelman's work is rather like modern art - sometimes you get it and at other times it feels just like 'scribble'. In a full length novel, and indeed in some of the longer pieces of writing here, you do get into the rhythm and it does work, but in a collection of short pieces there are many instances that feel like snippets of experimental creative writing with little discernable point to them. Certainly, he appears to have thrown out the convention of a story with a set up, a middle and an end a long time ago.

I don't want to outline each piece of writing here, but to illustrate my point about this collection, let's look at the first few pieces. First up is a darkly amusing piece that could have come straight from the pen of Beckett about a homeless amputee who is given a pair of trousers from Oxfam but with the wrong leg cut off. Then we move to a very short piece called Our Times about a 'normal' family situation that goes nowhere. Perhaps the sub-text is that this normal majority are only worth a couple of pages out of the 280 pages of the book about people on the edge. That's what I mean about the reader having to work for the meaning - and I'm not even sure that I'm right.

The third piece Talking about my wife is longer and is the internal and external dialogue of a man returning home from the night shift having been given the sack for shouting at his boss. Interior monologues are one of Kelman's specialities - the vast majority of this book falls into that category. If I was supposed to feel any sympathy for the protagonist, I didn't. I just wanted him to shut up - and even more, I wanted him to stop spelling 'politics' with first two 'p's and then four (as in 'ppppolitics'). The fourth piece is one of those bits of creative writing that starts in the middle of a sentence and goes on for a couple of pages with no break and ends mid-sentence. This is either creative or pretentious, in my view. It was lost on me.

And so it goes on.

Saying that, there were some that I did enjoy. A Sour Mystery relates a tale of a drink between a man and his ex-girlfriend that is beautifully observed and very authentic. Similarly The Gate which tells of a grandfather collecting a bicycle for his grandson is touching and poignant. And the title piece is interesting on a variety of issues including nationality, youth and class and is very accessible. But even here, there is the habit of writing something and then questioning it and the strange occasional ending of paragraphs mid-sentence. In general, the longer pieces are much better though and the writing can be completely enthralling in places.

None of this should deter the reader from exploring any of Kelman's full length novels which are intense and not always easy to read, but, for me at least, offer a far more rewarding outcome. This, however left me frequently feeling stupid for not 'getting' what he was trying to achieve - and that's not a good feeling to be left with from a book and feels strangely divisive for someone so keen on the plight of the marginalised.

Many thanks to the nice people at Hamish Hamilton for inviting The Bookbag to review this challenging book.

An equally intense but, for me, far more rewarding, experience can be gained from the Booker-winning How Late It Was, How Late, while for short stories, then Tania Hershman's The White Road is highly recommended.

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Buy If it is Your Life by James Kelman at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy If it is Your Life by James Kelman at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy If it is Your Life by James Kelman at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy If it is Your Life by James Kelman at Amazon.com.


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