The unclenched fist: the awesome literary genius of Alasdair Gray


“…[she] thrust an unclenched fist at me across the table. I stared at it, puzzled, until I saw she was offering to shake my hand.”

That is the sentence (and a bit) that hit me in the face with what a bloody genius Alasdair Gray is. It seems like an innocuous sentence at first glance and I’ll admit it isn’t heavy with literary pyrotechnics other writers use to knock the wind out of you when you read it. It’s a quiet sentence, but it’s what it does that makes it so successful.

I knew Gray was an amazing writer already. I first discovered his work when I was looking for dystopian novels and someone recommended Lanark to me. Lanark is an epic, sprawling, weird novel that makes you question what is real and what truth is anyway. It’s a fantastic book and you should definitely read it as soon as you can, if speculative fiction and grimy dystopias are you sort of thing. I’m working my way through the rest of his bibliography and at the moment I’m reading Old Men in Love: John Tunnock’s Posthumous Papers, which is where the genius sentence above comes from.

What blew me away about the sentence was that when I first read I didn’t get it; I had to go back and re-read it to understand what it meant. What’s an unclenched fist, for god’s sake? Then I realised; it’s a hand, just a hand. But if it had said she “thrust a hand at me across the table” it would have been fairly obvious that it was an invitation to a handshake. The use of unclenched fist is puzzling: I was puzzled and that’s when it hit me: just like the character. By choosing those words, instead of the more obvious and perhaps clearer, Gray had made me experience the same feeling he was describing his character having. Genius, no?

Study creative writing or read anything about writing at all and sooner or later you’ll come across the notion that a writer should select their words, every single word that is, very carefully. It seems obvious, I mean that’s all writing is, isn’t it, choosing words? But knowing that and understanding it is really different; perhaps I’m super slow but reading the sentence was when it really got into my brain and actually made sense. This is why you choose your words with such care: because you can actually do stuff to the reader, make them feel things and help them to understand what you’re trying to say in a more personal way. Wow. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get it, but now I have I’m hoping it will make my writing better. (Maybe don’t take this blog post as an example of that though, yeah?)

I really like the fact that this example of genius kind of breaks the rules a bit; it’s making the reader work to understand what’s going on. Any writing course or tutor will tell you that the best prose draws the reader and make them forget that they’re reading and any clunky phrasing is the worst writing crime you can commit because it makes the reader pause and remember that they’re not in swashbuckling in 19th century Spain alongside your main character, they’re sitting on a draughty bus next to someone who smells of eggs and broken dreams.

Gray doesn’t really give a shit about that; inserting himself into his novels and stories is his thing. His books constantly remind you that you’re reading, in Old Men in Love he is referred in the introduction as the editor of the book, even though it’s clear that you’re reading a novel he’s written, and there are sidenotes throughout that add to the novel, sometimes seemingly pointlessly. He even inserts himself in a review of the protagonist’s writing: Tunnock receives a letter about his novel in progress, extracts of which have been published in a literary journal, and in it the letter writer says “I’ve read nothing so good since Alasdair Gray’s Lanark.” Gray is not a writer interested in drawing the reader in and immersing them in the interior world of the novel and its characters. As I’ve mentioned, though, Gray is a genius and his ability to write amazing, almost hypnotic stories is clearly demonstrated in every sentence he crafts. He can break the rules as much as he wants.

Let me know in the comments section if you have a favourite sentence in literature.

If you like this, check out my blog about where ideas come from. Plus follow me on Twitter @SallyWJones.

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