1982, Janine, Paperback
4.5 out of 5 (4 ratings)


An unforgettably challenging book about power and powerlessness, men and women, masters and servants, small countries and big countries, Alasdair Gray's exploration of the politics of pornography has lost none of its power to shock. 1982 Janine is a searing portrait of male need and inadequacy, as explored via the lonely sexual fantasies of Jock McLeish, failed husband, lover and businessman.Yet there is hope here, and the humour (if black) and the imaginative and textual energy of the narrative achieves its own kind of redemption in the end.




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An essential classic. An ageing, divorced, secretly alcoholic electrical engineer sits in a hotel room paid for by his employers and drinks. He drinks and fantasises about matters sexual in order to keep reality at bay - and especially the realities of his own inadequacies and major and minor failures, including his support for the nasty kind of Social Darwinism so much in fashion in England (and other places) then (and now!) But tonight is the night on which everything will come apart...

Review by

NB: I keep trying to space the paragraphs, with HTML and otherwise, but no dice - I apologize for the blocky text here!<p>1982, Janine is - well, structurally, it is the rambling, recursive introspection of an unnamed man as he sits in a hotel room in Peebles or possibly Selkirk, pondering his sexual fantasies, the demise of his marriage, his childhood, the death of a man he admired, and other various and sundry events. We learn bits and pieces about his internal landscape as his thoughts interrupt one another - in the middle of a painful memory about his ex-wife, he'll start fantasizing mid-word and launch into a slightly new iteration of the same masturbatory fantasy we meet early on. Or, in the middle of a fantasy, to calm himself down, he'll think back to mixed regret and anguish in childhood, his wish to be better than he is and his simultaneous inflating himself and criticizing himself, or the way lovers of his have treated him. As the foreword says, this is a porn fantasy, novella, and work of experimental fiction all intertwined like messy weeds.<p>Probably the thing I like the most about the book is the style of writing, just the way it feels. Each page contains a caption in the margin that attempts to get at the main point of that page - a meta-structure or outline of sorts. The writing is grammatical, for the most part - but sentences are fragmentary, incomplete, and self-interrupting - it is the closest thing I have ever read to actually being in someone's mind. There are passages of a single letter or of characters at times of extreme emotion - the way many of us find ourselves thinking non-verbally at such moments.<p>Another thing that compels me is the recursiveness. The narrator returns to the same themes again and again - sexual fantasies involving the same characters in similar situations; his own importance or lack thereof in his job; how he felt about his parents as a child; his ex-wife and former lovers - and every so often, a new thread will be introduced. He can't help himself from pouring over and over these things as he drinks and thinks - his obsessive focus should be boring, and yet I wasn't bored - I kept looking for new clues, or sympathizing with his need to review and review - I do the same thing about troubling events or even amazing ones.<p>Self points out that Grey here is experimenting with new forms - and I think that's true, but it's much easier to follow than Joyce's Ulysses or Danielewski's House of Leaves. If you don't like this book, it may be because you are uncomfortable with the sexual parts - you won't have liked Portnoy's Complaint either. (see also feminist complaints here). Amazon says this is about power and powerlessness - that is very accurate. Amazon also says it's about these things as examined through pornography and sex - I think they've got it partially right. The narrator is so obsessed with his status in society and in relation to other people that this is really all he can think about. It comes out in his fantasies - of course it does - but it comes out everywhere else too.<p> You might also not like it because the narrator is so damnably, irritatingly human - he's weak, he struggles, he's not very likeable. Or you might not like it because you find plots involving mental stages boring - you need action to happen on the outside. But if you like to read about the human brain and how it works, if you like to imagine what it must be like to be another person, if the idea of a frank expose of one screwed up guy's inner workings appeals to you - I think you'll find this a marvellous book.<p>

Review by

Gray is an experimental novelist; this was his second novel. It takes tremendous risks with form, with the reader's sympathy, with coherence, and with the author's capacity to suspend disbelief. Gray is also a painter and printmaker, and he made the cover and drew his own self-portrait for the jacket. (More on that later.) The book also has some pages of graphical typography, which he says are unconsciously borrowed from "Tristram Shandy." (More on that later.)The protagonist, John McLeish, is a middle aged alcoholic and drug addict. He has had, in his own account, a disastrous life, and he's been especially miserable with women. He's full of "self-disgust" and embarrassment. (p. 106) He's in a hotel room, thinking (and by implication writing), drinking, and popping pills. The risks begin immediately, when it seems the book is going to be a series of pornographic fantasies, designed to distract him from thinking about his miserable cowardly behavior, his pitiful obsessions, and his ineffectual life. That's risky on two levels, for two reasons:1. As an idea for a novel, it's risky because pornographic narratives are notoriously difficult to manage. Readers might be aroused, bored, offended, or numbed, in succession, repeatedly. That was the 1970s reception of de Sade; the repetition in his novels was said to be an emblem of the endlessness of narrative in general. Here, the novelist's idea of attractive women and how they dress cannot help but get old very fast, even if, as a reader, you were ever on board with it. (Gray has McLeish dismiss de Sade in a brief couple of sentence, for an irrelevant reason. What can that be except classic repression?)So early on I began worrying for Gray, wonderding if he could sustain the abrupt transitions from pornographic fantasies to realist descriptions of middle-class Scottish life. 2. As representation of someone's imagination, it's risky because McLeish is using these fantasies for two things at once: they supposedly help him to stop thinking about his actual life, but they are also masturbation fantasies, but he doesn't want to wank, because that depresses him even more, and so he keeps wanting to end the very fantasies that are sustaining him. How long, I wondered, could McLeish, in the novel, continue in that mindset? It doesn't make things easier that the two worlds are so far apart. The fantasies are lurid, full of clichés, repetitive, sexist in the most obvious ways, and the stories of McLeish's real life have all those same qualities but are opposite in affect. The pornography is relentlessly optimistic and controlling; the real memories are equally relentlessly pathetic and pessimistic.So early on I began worrying for McLeish, wondering if he could sustain... etc.Concerning the cover: Gray has several styles; the design on the cover is a nude man in a variation of Leonardo's homo ad circulum. It's done in the kind of mid-20th c. woodcut style that was itself a belated emulation of Beardsley and other fin-de-siecle illustrators. It gives of a stale perfume, as Ezra Pound once said of his own first collection of poetry, "A Lume Spento." (He called his early work, which had the same very serious preciousness, "stale cream-puffs.") The style does not fit the novel's content.Concerning the graphic typography: almost exactly in the middle of the book, McLeish has a drug-induced breakdown, which is expressed partly in the narrative, and partly in the gradual introduction of all-caps words DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG DUNG and partly with words that run down the marginsCOLDCOLDCOLDCOLDCOLDCOLDCOLDCOLDCOLDCOLDCOLDCOLDand partly in italics, boldface, and marginal annotations, and finally in a couple of pages where the text funnels down to a point, and new texts come in at each side. It's a graphical crux, and in the middle there is also print that is set sideways and upside-down. (p. 184) In the middle of the crux, printed across one line, is a word that condenses the pornography with the pathetic life the narrator is actually leading:SUFFUFFUFFUFFUFFUCKUCKUCKUCKATINGwith "fuck" right in the middle.This is all hand typeset (in 1982, if Gray had lived in California, he could have used the early Apple computers, but this book was done with that kind of assistance). Naturally it is necessary not to judge the book anachronistically: but it's still possible to ask if the graphical typesetting expresses what it is meant to. I find it the most convincing part of the book, partly because it is so fastidiously managed, even though it means to depict a moment of hysterical crisis and hallucination; and partly because Gray permits himself other voices, which can't be assigned to anyone in the book. This is the only time in the book that such a thing happens, and it is strange and liberating.After this, the book relents on its own structure, the one that worried me, and becomes more of a narrative about McLeish's actual life. In the second half, there are fewer interruptions from the pornographic fantasies, and when they occur they are more managed. At one point, McLeish is having a fantasy about his principal imaginary object of desire, Janine, involving "two unfastened studs in her skirt"; he interrupts this with the words "and this is NOT the fantasy I intended," and then immediately resumes his thoughts about politics. The very next sentence is "One of the earliest aims of the United States space programme was to create a self-supporting human colony on the moon..." (p. 311). This is an atrophied, defanged version of the more hysterical, less effective, interruptions that fill the narrative up to the crisis.In this way the book becomes less risky, and for me less interesting, after the crux. It ends with a moment of redemption that is suitably pathetic: McLeish remembers a minor moment of courage that he had back in school, facing up to a sadistic teacher. There could hardly be a less self-aggrandizing moment of triumph, and it is so appallingly small in relation to what he's done, and not done, during his life, that it functions as the only possible believable redemption. But for me, it's a patch that is required by the entire second half of the book. The more radical first half could not have used that moment, even if it had been available to McLeish or Gray.(Parenthetically: I wasn't taken by the politics in the book, but there is a lot to be said about it, and it's one of Gray's central preoccupations. A very good treatment is in Stephen Bernstein's book "Alisdair Gray," which devotes a chapter to "1982, Janine," and the many links between the narrator's politics, his sense of class, place, and self, and his sexual fantasies.)

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One of my favorite books. Though it's been quite a while since I've read it, so I don't think I could review it with any justice at this stage. But this is the book that sold me on the genius of Alasdair Gray.

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