Early on in Scottish writer James Kelman’s newest novel, “Mo Said She Was Quirky,’’ Helen (the titular “she”) thinks this about her live-in boyfriend Mo’s silliness: “She liked it about him but also she didnt like it.” This is exactly how I feel about the novel itself, which is terrifically compelling except in those somewhat isolated moments when it’s terrifically aggravating.
I suspect this wouldn’t be news to Kelman, nor would it bother him overmuch: For Kelman, the least important thing a novel can produce is plot; the most important is insight. And if the insight being produced is filtered through the consciousness of a limited character — and all characters worth anything are limited — then some of the insight is bound to aggravate. A novelist like Kelman not only accepts this limitation, but celebrates it: His newest book suggests that a mind — and a novel — is capable of great insight, but we would not be able to understand how great the insight is if we were not, occasionally, allowed to see how great it sometimes is not.
I said earlier that the novel doesn’t have much of a plot — it doesn’t, nor does the reader miss it — but that doesn’t mean we can’t summarize what is there. The book begins with Helen (mother of 6-year-old Sophie, whose deadbeat father lives in Glasgow) in a taxi on the way home (a too-small apartment that she shares with Sophie and Mo) from her night shift at a London casino. As she looks out she thinks she sees her estranged brother, Brian, walking on the street with another man. But before Helen can be sure, the taxi moves on, and Helen loses sight of the two men.
In another novel written by another writer, Helen would then set out in search of her brother, and Helen’s ex would show up in London to complicate her search for her brother and also to endanger the already-precarious life she’s built with Mo and Sophie, and in between and around all this Helen would go to work at the casino.
Basically, none of this happens (the novel is a 24-hour tour of Helen’s mind, bookended by trips to and from the casino) but Helen does think a lot about the possibility of all of that happening, and about lots of other things, and the thoughts are so interesting, and so idiosyncratically framed and phrased, that Helen’s thinking is novel enough.
For instance, on the subject of men in general, and her ex-husband in particular, and her ex-husband’s treatment of her daughter in even more particular: “He threw her in the air! My God! Why did men do that?” And on her native Scotland: “Scotland was horrible for dying. . . . Porridge and whisky, kilts and haggises.” And on rich people: “Rich people can have different competitions; they compete in different ways, for different things, things invisible to ordinary people. Lives depend upon it. And not their own, never their own.” And on the impossibility of Brian coming to live with them: “If they had had more space; life would have been easier if they had — unless he slept on the kitchen floor. Because where else? Then Helen coming home in early morning and not able to sit, not able to have a cup of tea, and wee Sophie coming in in her underclothes.” And on the state of the apartment, the state of Helen: “In this place everything was old. Nothing worked. Especially if she was using it.” And again on men in general, and gamblers ogling Helen in particular: “Men enjoyed making you squirm, and nipples too, guys making comments.”
I hope the reader makes the effort to track that last sentence as it moves from the broadly declarative, to the non sequitur (“and nipples too”), to the incomplete (“guys making comments”). It is not a good sentence, but it is a great sentence. One way to think of “Mo’’ is that it’s a novel full of great sentences; another way to think of “Mo’’ is that it’s proof that to be a novel full of great sentences is the best thing for a novel to be.
What happens, though, when the sentences aren’t so great? Because this occasionally is the case in this novel — usually when Kelman makes Helen’s thoughts too obvious and simplistic. “People were prejudiced,” she thinks at one point; “Life is so weird,” she thinks at another. Late in the novel she comes to the startling conclusion that “[p]eople are different.” These are the aggravations I spoke of earlier.
These sentences don’t ruin the novel, but they might make you wonder about how a novel this rich in language can occasionally seem so impoverished. But then again, you might also wonder how a novel so bereft of plot, of action, of scene can feel so full; or how Helen’s life and thoughts can be both so claustrophobic and expansive. In other words, it is hard to ignore this book’s flaws, but Kelman somehow makes those flaws seem part of, and not detraction from, the book’s miracles.Brock Clarke, the author most recently of “Exley,” teaches at Bowdoin College. He can be reached at brockwayclarke @yahoo.com.