If one takes off the dustjacket of the first edition of Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things, the clothbound cover bears the foil legend ‘WORK AS IF YOU LIVE IN THE EARLY DAYS OF A BETTER NATION.’ Such is the reverence his work receives in his homeland of Scotland, this slogan went on to be chiselled into its new parliament building, erected after the country voted for devolution in 1997. This phrase is now synonymous with Gray and the cultural flourishing that he and the so-called second Scottish literary renaissance inaugurated in the closing decades of the twentieth century. Now that his acclaimed novel has been adapted with aplomb by the Greek auteur, Yorgos Lanthimos, a whole new global audience is going to be introduced to Gray’s radical imaginative vision.
Poor Things is a scabrous satire of the stifling rationalism and oppressive hierarchies of class, imperialism and gender which propelled Glasgow’s rapid industrialisation in the nineteenth century. Like most of his works, it’s a metafictional labyrinth that some scholars would lazily deem postmodernist but is overtly modelled on James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of Justified Sinner and pastiches the period appropriate gothic novels with their epistolary melodrama and undercurrent of the supernatural.
Gray depicts himself as the mere editor of a manuscript that was discovered dumped outside a law office. The bulk is this found memoir of Archibald McCandless, telling the story of how as a struggling poor medical student McCandless was taken under the wing of Dr Godwin Baxter, a grotesquely corpulent scientist with a penchant for unconventional medical experiments. He recruits McCandless as his assistant on his most ambitious yet: removing the brain of a pregnant suicidal woman and inserting the one of her unborn child, christening her Bella.
Watching Lanthimos’s oeuvre, it is obvious what attracted him to this impish inversion of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. His previous films relish in hermetic environments: his breakthrough feature Dogtooth features a family in an isolated house in which they live a life governed by a bizarre cosmology which stipulates the children have to lose a dogtooth in order to enter the real world. Bella, played with jerky animatronic flair by Emma Stone, growing up in a woman’s body, learning to speak as she learns the social codes that govern her bodily existence similarly relishes in peculiar language games that offer a looking-glass perspective on reality.
Bella strives for female autonomy, acting as a foil for the misogynist attitudes of her era since she is devoid of the inhibitions bred from years of social conditioning. She is subjected to the proprietary claims of McCandless, who Godwin wishes her to marry, and Duncan Wedderburn, the caddish possessive lawyer with whom she absconds from Godwin’s townhouse to travel Europe. Bella’s former husband, General Blessington, insists she ought to return to a life of subordination and domination as he pursues further conquests for Britain’s expanding empire.
Like his previous films, The Lobster and The Favourite, the first act of Poor Things is set in a confined interior which constructs a solipsistic world with its own linguistic and visual vocabulary, in this case Godwin’s opulent townhouse. Here Bella is raised by Godwin, played by a Willem Defoe channelling his best Alasdair Gray impression, to be a creature of Enlightenment reason, surrounded by his strange chimerical animals and arcane scientific instruments, taking Gray’s Lewis Carrol-inspired surrealism to its visual endpoint. The warping monochrome fish-eye gives the film the Escherian quality of dream.
Much has been made of the moving of the setting from Glasgow to London. Paralleling James Joyce’s depictions of Dublin, Alasdair Gray used his home city as the material basis for much of his art, not only because it was close to hand but also because he believed that it, like any other city, could harbour the truths of the modern condition. Poor Things is a book steeped in Glasgow’s history of poverty and plenty. The machines made in the city’s shipyards and locomotive works transformed the world. They were the conduits of international trade and migration; the engines that moved minerals, imperial officials and soldiers around the world and across the empire’s territory.
A Universal Story
Poor Things though is also a universal story. Lanthimos’ adaptation demonstrates how Gray’s life and reading of his home city apply to an era mutated by the forces of science and technology as applied by the whims of capital. Glasgow stood at the epicentre of those transformations at a key point in the make of our contemporary world. The conceit of elites to envision utopian technological futures whilst profiting from and embracing grotesque structures of oppression couldn’t be more relevant in the age of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.
On Clydeside, there was a symbiosis between the harsh liberalism of the rising bourgeoisie, faith in science and progress and disregard for those crushed under its wheels. Lanthimos visualises Bella’s life journey through a steampunk reverie. Her affair with Wedderburn sours aboard a Mediterranean steamship when she despairs at the site of impoverished Egyptians. This scene, as in the novel, forms the emotional and political crux of the film. Until this moment, the screenplay is in danger of feeling unmoored from a recognisable political reality that the novel grounds in its realistic portrayal of Glasgow. Gray’s pedantic but playful editorial commentary attests to the historical authenticity of the events contained within McCandless’s narrative.
This realisation, not sexual discovery, is Bella’s true loss of innocence. It eventually takes her down the road to living by prostitution in Paris and envisioning a world free of poverty and subjugation. It is here that Gray’s politics shines through, as Bella goes on to embrace socialism and grasps the newly opened opportunity to train as a doctor and play a leading role in bringing about the better world she wishes to see. Given her rapid evolution from a tabula rasa standing start, there is also in Bella’s trajectory a communication of Gray’s humanism. His socialism was grounded in a thorough conviction that the desire to educate oneself to the purpose of aiding others was innate to the human condition.
In a wry blurb for a ‘high class hardback’ that Alasdair Gray featured on the dustjacket for the first edition of Poor Things, he wrote ‘since 1979 the British government has worked to restore Britain to its Victorian state, so Alasdair Gray has at last shrugged off his postmodernist label and written an up-to-date nineteenth-century novel.’ Gray makes clear in his characteristic deadpan that buried within the novel is an oblique commentary on the depredations of Thatcherism, its unabashed veneration of individualism and imperialist chauvinism.
If anything, the neoliberal Victorian experiment Thatcher inaugurated has now been well exported around the globe and it would be glib to underscore the ubiquity of revanchist rhetoric that permeates our media. With deft economy, the film dutifully retains the socialist critiques of the novel. Bella redistributes Wedderburn’s card game winnings to the poor of Alexandria; General Blessington maintains the submission of his servants at gunpoint; in rejecting the attempt of her military first husband to win her back, Bella retorts ‘I am not territory!’ A less charitable reading might see these as cursory concessions to Gray’s politics although it is certainly more elegant than the sometimes hectoring didacticism of his prose.
Ultimately the film dramatises the tyranny of property in all its guises. In its very form, it underlines how the suggestion that Gray’s story belongs to Glasgow goes against the grain of his whole artistic project. Gray’s fiction has always self-consciously repurposed the works of the literary canon to construct his own stories – Lanark infamously includes an index of plagiarisms – so his novel being reimagined for the screen is very much in this spirit of a literary commons. Indeed, Poor Things also lays bare its literary pilferings. At the end of the novel, in a letter, Bella disputes the fantastical contrivances of McCandless’s memoir and exposes how he has stolen ‘episodes and phrases to be found in Hogg’s Suicide’s Grave with additional ghoueries from the works of Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe.’
Not even WORK AS IF YOU LIVE IN EARLY DAYS OF A BETTER NATION is Gray’ own phrase; Gray used to love pointing out that it was in fact written by the Canadian poet Dennis Lee, whose most famous work is as the lyricist for Fraggle Rock from The Muppets. Similarly, Lanthimos’s film is a salmagundi of European cinematic influences brimming with visual quotations, one of the most obvious being Fassbinder’s Querelle with its eroticised architecture. This first wondrous cinematic patchwork of one of his novels not only firmly establishes Alasdair Gray’s place in the world republic of literature, it also makes the case for a world where no person or story should be anybody’s property.