Poor things, published in 1992, won Alasdair Gray the Whitbread Novel Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize. Simultaneously gothic fantasy, social commentary, pastiche and satire, the book is also a beautiful object, filled with the author’s illustrations and visual devices. As Newsweek put it: ‘A master of pastiche and collage in words and pictures, Gray has found a way to perfectly evoke a cracked, slightly out-of-balance sense of reality.’
He goes to great lengths to extend the reader’s suspension of disbelief. We’re told he’s the book’s editor, merely providing an introduction to the found text that takes up the bulk of the pages that follow. There’s a preliminary page of cod reviews overlaid with a fake erratum slip. The next page has his biography sitting atop a biography of Alexander McCandless, the supposed writer of the self-published Victorian autobiography that follows. We’re told a series of unlikely events brought the book into his hands. Intended as a humble gift to the author’s wife in 1909, she in turn left it ‘for the attention of her eldest grandchild or surviving descendant after August 1974’. There having been no descendants in 1974, it had been thrown out by the current occupants of her lawyers’ offices. A local historian found it in a ‘a heap of old-fashioned box files on the edge of the pavement, obviously placed there for the Cleansing Department to collect and destroy’. Then it found it’s way to Gray:
‘He lent me this book, saying he thought it a lost masterpiece which ought to be printed. I agreed with him, and said I would arrange it if he gave me complete control of the editing. He agreed, a little reluctantly, when I promised to make no changes to Archibald McCandless’s actual text… the main part of this book is as near to a facsimile of the original as possible, with the Strand etchings and other illustrative devices reproduced photographically.’
In this ‘introduction’ Gray goes on to provide the reader with ‘evidence’ to prove the factual basis of the autobiography to follow. He also explains his falling-out with the historian:
‘He blames me for the loss of the original volume, which is unfair. I would have gladly have sent a photocopy to the publisher and returned the original, but that would have added at least £300 to the production costs. Modern typesetters can “scan” a book into their machine from a typed page, but from a photocopy must type it in all over again; moreover the book was needed by a photographic specialist, to make plates from which the Strang etchings and facsimiles of Bella’s letter could be reproduced. Somewhere between editor, publisher, typesetter and photographer the unique first edition was mislaid. These mistakes are continually happening in book production, and nobody regrets it more than I do.’
And so we turn to the cover of the book-within-a-book:
The inside cover and the author’s handwritten dedication to his wife:
And the contents page, with its ‘William Strang’ etching of the author:
More etchings throughout:
‘Wedderburn’s letter: making a maniac’:
A typical typographical flourish:
A scrawled cry for help from ‘Bella Baxter’s letter: making a conscience’.
A newspaper cutting:
From the appendix: ‘Notes critical and historical by Alasdair Gray’:
When the autobiography draws to a close, we’re shown the inside back cover and the back cover. Then Gray the ‘editor’ provides 40 pages of clippings, illustrations and written evidence for the fantastical events in the preceding pages. The visual devices work from first page to last to bolster the suspension of disbelief - all voices are first-person and put us in the minds of the characters; the graphic elements go further and allow us to see through their eyes.
By designing as well as authoring ‘Poor things’, Gray has not only produced a beautiful and special book, he has also provided a different, fuller reading experience.