- James Kelman: Politics and Aesthetics by Aaron Kelly
Four decades into his career as a published writer, there is an extensive body of scholarship on the work of James Kelman. Aaron Kelly’s lucid and trenchant study takes its place as a landmark in the field; and also refuses this placement, largely ignoring the critics and debates that came before. It is accordingly difficult to locate Kelly’s brilliant and pious book by any coordinates other than its own, a pattern faintly reminiscent of the ‘closed’ and self-verifying quality of Kelman’s own polemicism.
Certainly this is the most robust and ambitious study of James Kelman from a Marxist perspective. Kelly constructs a powerful and elaborate theoretical framework via Jacques Rancière and Theodor Adorno, adapting their respective models of ‘literarity’ and non-identity to advance his core argument that Kelman’s aesthetic ‘negates the normative representational means by which people are kept in their place, a place where they are told they are most fully themselves but become most identical with the system that dominates them’. The discussion woven around this model is forceful and compelling in its own right, but less convincing when framed as a rebuttal of nameless critics said to construe Kelman’s fiction as ‘a resigned capitulation to capitalist domination or to the fracture of a once unified working-class collective purpose’. This strikes me as a straw-man, and Kelly is far more successful at fitting Kelman into his theoretical model than at placing the insights generated by that model into any rounded picture of Kelman’s literary significance or political influence.
One clear contribution to established fixtures in the field is Kelly’s notion of ‘unfree direct discourse’, a coinage highlighting conflict and instability in Kelman’s technique of saturating third-person narration with first-person experience, generating a zone of vocal collisions where ‘differing registers of subject position antagonistically fail to reconcile themselves with one another or with a world that is itself unreconciled’. Kelly follows earlier critics in emphasising the de-centred quality of Kelman’s adventures in introversion, but tends to underplay the lyric impulse and dimension of this writing — the extent to which Kelman really does exalt the inner world and its freedoms, howsoever marked by capitalist domination. This romantic-cum-existential aspect of his fiction and politics — the apparent endorsement [End Page 154] of the bourgeois subject — is skilfully reconciled, by Kelly, with Kelman’s own irreconcilability with bogus universals. His self-thwarting plots and narrative modes embody a ‘melancholy knowledge’ of unfreedom, haunted by dreams of Enlightenment and the empty promise of expressive democracy.
A book of limited help to readers struggling to work Kelman out, nearly all the insights of Kelly’s approach belong to the high discursive plane on which he operates. We spend most of the book peering down at Kelman’s work from very long stilts, and our gaze does not always reach the object of readerly (as opposed to theoretical) interest. When we do encounter the fiction at ground level, readings of characters and scenes are often subordinated to that higher meta-critical discussion, or set on stilts of their own. In truth the book is less about interpreting Kelman’s fiction and politics than enfolding both into a highly-wrought discursus on late capitalism and the politics of class. Few of Kelly’s arguments seem driven by fascination with the artworks at issue, and at times it seems Kelman’s chief attraction derives from the politico-discursive uses to which he can be put — as a club for walloping intellectual enemies (such as hapless devotees of the ‘postmodern Sublime’), or as an object lesson in the canny avoidance of ideological bear-traps identified by Bloch and Žižek. In place of a critical encounter with Kelman’s fiction, then, we have a fiercely clever and combative re-description of Kelman’s politics of form in an upgraded theoretical register. This represents a clear advance in Kelman’s critical reception; and yet...