Poor Things, Alasdair Gray

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Poor Things, Alasdair Gray, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992, ISBN 0-15-173076-8, $21.95

I make it my business┬áto read some pretty weird books–as an aficionado of science fiction and fantasy, I sometimes run into some doozies– but this novel by Gray has to be one of the strangest that I’ve run into recently. The fact that this novel was not published in the genre, and won a couple of mainstream awards makes me wonder what else I’m missing in the “mundane” fiction shelves.

Poor Things is supposedly non-fiction, as illustrated by its full title on the title page: “Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D., Scottish Public Health Officer, Edited by Alasdair Gray.” But this is all part of its mystique. Gray has constructed a literary puzzle, a Frankenstein’s monster of a book that takes its inspiration from that novel by Mary Shelley as well as the works of Robert Louis Stevenson and H.G. Wells. McCandless is the titular biographer, but the story is actually that of the eccentric Scottish doctor Godwin Baxter and his “creation,” Bella Baxter, later known as Dr. Victoria McCandless. Set in Glasgow in the 1880s, the plot entails how McCandless met Baxter, how he then met Baxter’s protege Bella and fell in love with her, her subsequent departure, and the circumstances of her return. To reveal any more would be to dilute the heavy stuff of the novel’s innovative twists.

If Gray were writing with the Fantasy label stuck on the spine of his books, I would have termed this one a “steampunk” novel for its revisionist look at medicine and technology in a pre-auto world. Fans of Tim Powers and James Blaylock should definitely check this one out.

[Finished November 1996]

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