This is a ‘long’ short story, quite a slender read, but with an unusual depth and in discussing it I want to give you a couple of terms of reference. These are ‘personal’ connections I made within the context of the book. They are F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Johnson and Boswell’s Tour of the Hebrides. Bear with me, the connections will become clear in the fullness of time.
The Hitchhiker ostensibly tells you the story of a young working class Scottish man in the early 1970’s who goes on his own small ‘tour’ – one small step for man, one big adventure for our ‘hero.’ But there’s much more to it than this. The opening preamble ‘About the story’ gives a hint when it says ‘Have you ever looked back and wondered if you had achieved anything worthwhile in your life, anything worth remembering?’ Because that is the real journey in this story. While the ‘journey’ to the Highlands is described in close and beautifully astute detail, which will be instantly recognisable to anyone who travelled those parts of Scotland in that era (but especially if they were of the same class and so stayed in the same sort of places, travelled on public transport etc) it is the story behind the story that is of just as much interest.
This takes us into the land of narrative voices. The distancing of the author. And the reason for this. Because in The Hitchhiker, there is ‘the story’ and the ‘reason’ for the story. There is a ‘man’ who is reliving the past by telling the story of his younger self and there is an external ‘narrator’ who tells us about the man (and boy). Some might think this extra narrator is unnecessary to the whole thing. But he’s not. He is there to distance the author (in my opinion) from his own lack of self confidence. It thus sort of completes the circle. And when you realise this is makes you angry (or should). You see that the man, the boy, the narrator (and the author?) are all unified in their lack of confidence in their skill/s as writer. It is this lack of confidence which may make people misunderstand the honesty of the story. But for me it’s what ‘makes’ the story, because it shows the truth of the author, the fictional hoops he’s putting himself through to ‘protect’ himself – he ‘needs’ to do this for himself, and yet he shouldn’t (and doesn’t) need to do this for the reader. The fact that he feels this need becomes an integral part of the importance of the story (in my opinion.) And yet it is the very narrative complexity which may well confuse (and put off) the reader. And so I’d like to concentrate on the why’s and wherefore’s of this narrative stance. This is where I bring in those ‘other works’ to try to explain what I mean.
When I first read The Great Gatsby I didn’t like it. What did I care for a bunch of ‘careless people’ in 1920’s America? Then I learned more about literature and how (and why) things are written and I realised that it was as much the story of the ‘narrator’ Nick (who was an outsider, observing the actions of these people) as it was about Gatsby et al. And of course, Gatsby himself was a ‘fictional’ creation (even within the novel) creating his identity in order to win the woman he loved. It is in part a novel of class struggle, or class consciousness. And once I understood that I came to love the novel, short as it is, as something very deep and profound; with language that just danced and that ‘something’ that wasn’t there just in the marks on paper. Not subtext, not hypertext, if you like the sort of ‘soul’ of writing. It’s there if you look for it. If you are willing to learn and not just dismiss. If you can match your expectations to the authorial intention.
And this is where I draw my parallel with The Hitchhiker. Gisby’s work exudes the lack of self confidence of a working class young man who doesn’t quite believe that he has a ‘right’ to be an author. I don’t mean that the writing is poor, I mean that the narrative stance shows us the lack of confidence (misplaced) in his identity as an author. And this holds true for the character and the author. That’s interesting. And quite ‘different.’ And when you understand and embrace this you get not just one long short story, but more than one story, layered, every bit as layered as the ‘story’ in Gatsby. It’s an emotional journey for the narrator, the man, the author and, if he picks up on it, the reader.
Then there’s the actual physical journey. Which is great but over too soon. That’s memory for you. Unlike Boswell, Gisby didn’t think his experiences worth recording at the time. This got me thinking about Boswell and Johnson. I read Tour of the Hebrides long ago and so I re-read it after finishing The Hitchhiker to see what comparison I could draw. I’ve never been a fan of what I think of as ‘overblown’ writing of the 18th century, and frankly a lot of it I find both boring and patronising, (though of course interesting from the perspective of social history). I just wish that Gisby had kept as much of a journal as Boswell did because I could have read that all day. Gisby’s ‘real’ journey sent me in search of Boswell again, wanting more. But it was more of Gisby I wanted! However my re-reading of the Tour of the Hebrides opened my eyes to a number of things, one of the most crucial being the difference in confidence between the middle class and the working class even back then. Boswell (and Johnson) would never feel the need to put a narrative distance to their work.
So we have several stories in this short work. All of them interesting and all of them important. I have read several of Brendan Gisby’s works now. First I read the novel The Preservation of the Olive Branch’ and it perplexed me. Like The Hitchhiker it had the same multiple layered narrative and since I took this to be a ‘standard’ device (or authors trick?) I had expectations of how the novel would ‘resolve’ which were then thwarted. I couldn’t quite bring myself to dismiss this as ‘author error’ or ‘a poor book’ but I couldn’t work out why I was unhappy with it. I then read The Bookie’s Runner and it broke my heart. I loved it. The simplicity, the honesty and the poignancy just took my breath away. It shows Gisby at his most confident best, slipping off the self doubt because as writer he exists in the shadow of the ‘hero’, his dad. I have since embarked upon a Gisby reading fest which I’m still in the middle of. But recently, when I came to The Hitchhiker, which uses much the same narrative ‘devices’ as Preservation, I had my epiphany. I finally understood the depth in both works and realised that the author’s journey is part of the narrative of both works.
So, my message is, sometimes the reader needs to wake up and realise that the author is not writing specifically to their personal expectations. Sometimes you’ll see something new and different and if you look closer you will find a gem which you might have dismissed as coal. And this is the joy of indie epublishing. That authors with moving stories can find the confidence of their ‘voice’ and get their work out there for others to read. Without gatekeepers. Of course, if you like the cut of Boswell’s gib and think that Nick in The Great Gatsby is an ignorant prole, then I don’t recommend you read this book. If you want to understand both something about Scotland in the 1970’s and the displaced self confidence and identity issues of a man brought up in that time and place then DO read it. I’m off to re-read The Preservation of the Olive Branch with my new found understanding. If you read The Hitchhiker and don’t ‘get it’ then please, read The Bookie’s Runner and if you are still unconvinced that Brendan Gisby is a great author, I doubt you have an empathetic bone in your body. I am confident in my belief in him, because I understand that lack of confidence all too well. That Gisby brings this to the author’s toolbox is a brave and important thing.
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