[Tychy is nothing if not a writer and reviewer of short stories: this website to date features over eighty short stories, of varying ambitions and success; and numerous reviews of either individual stories or complete volumes by authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, E.F. Benson, and Laird Barron. “Short Story Review,” a series devoted exclusively to volumes of short stories, consolidates this website’s longstanding and on-going critical appreciation of short fiction.]
James Robertson ostensibly favours the cause of Scottish independence, but his short stories tend to concede that freedom remains a dream in the modern world. The title of his 2012 collection Republics of the Mind brings up to date that old saying about “building castles in the air.” The first eleven of these twenty two stories were published originally in The Ragged Man’s Complaint (1993), four years prior to Scotland’s devolution referendum, and they reappear in Republics two years ahead of the vote on independence. Notwithstanding this chronology, the later stories do not give much of an impression of having progressed beyond the early 1990s. None of them mention the internet, for example, although there are repeated, fixated references to the sort of awful television which everybody was forced to watch in the days before the internet’s invention, “six till eleven, oven-ready meals on laps.”
Although Robertson stamps a fresh scenario on to each of his stories, they usually find their way back to the same, common theme: that of lethargy. Ken from “The Shelf”  is initially too “overwhelmed by lethargy” to erect the wardrobe which is assuredly destined to symbolise his own “closeted” existence. Shona, the leading lady in “Screen Lives,”  reflects that, “All she wanted, all she had ever wanted, was to be alive,” whilst Dan from “What Love Is”  yearns “for life to be something more than what it is.” In “The Rock Cake Incident”  we follow an aimless day in Gregor’s life and we are lucky that we can leave at the end of it. Gregor would “quite like to change his name, occupation, appearance, maybe even his sex, and start all over again.”
If Robertson’s characters are often powerless over their own lives, they cannot expect to be saved by a nation which remains equally unfree. As Kate from “Republic of the Mind,”  concludes, “they were less than whole because of how their country was.” Even so, there is no tragedy to these tales and their circumstances are pathetic only in the everyday, undramatic sense. When Kate asserts that, “All we are doing is waiting,” she strips Scotland of the dignity even of being subjugated. This is a nation too lethargic and inexplicably disorganised to take control of its own destiny. In “Old Mortality”  the surplus “oil rigs” which are visible from the cemetery are both as venerable and vulnerable as its ancient, defaced tombstones. Scotland’s means of production are now effectively an abandoned graveyard.
The Injuns from “The Future According to Luke”  are actually honorary Scots. Robertson may be teasing us with the prospect that Scotland is as oppressed as the Lakota nation, but these peoples are ultimately alike in their lethargy. If the dreaming Luke cannot tell Johnny from Dean, Dean sounds indistinguishable from any of Robertson’s Scottish characters:
He felt like he wasn’t fully alive, like somebody had reached in and taken some vital organ out of his body while he was sleeping… Somebody had stolen something from him, his ability to get angry or even just active.
Elsewhere a successful novelist, Robertson can on occasion defer to the short story with outstanding results. He can transform the rough grist of politics into smooth, fine literature. His best tales are unsatisfactory only at the points where a trace of his defeatist politics underpins the flavour. But he can also write badly and when this occurs you are reminded that he is elsewhere a successful novelist.
Robertson’s weakest stories are deficient in realism and they now and then stray dangerously close to allegory. In the absence of realistic characterisation and motive, “The Dayshift”  becomes spuriously allegorical, although this is tempered somewhat by its mysterious setting and atmosphere. Are the masses flooding across the unspecified, possibly post-Soviet border for no other reason than that they can? Or if there is a better reason, then why is the unnamed border official not infected by their enthusiasm? Since this scenario is remote from our everyday experiences of immigration, we may dismiss it as we would a perplexing dream.
In “The Plagues”  a bookstore clerk is haunted by swarming frogs. If this tale is read realistically, the clerk is merely simple. If read allegorically, his frogs represent the unstoppable encroachment of nature. Yet the horror malfunctions: since frogs are overwhelmingly quaint and moderate creatures, their takeover is hardly a disaster.
Other tales are superbly atmospheric but they are not inclined to disturb any momentous themes. “Opportunities”  skilfully chronicles an evening of failed drunkenness – unlike the Scots of tartan legend, these characters cannot even achieve solidarity when there is whisky on the table. The poet Adam claims that, “the one thing I never write about is writing.” Yet without a line of his poetry in his entire narrative, we only ever hear Adam boasting about his income or fretting about his standing with a fellow poet. His narrative is all biography and no art; we are shown the evening which may have inspired a poem (presumably one of the “opportunities” of the title) but not the poem itself.
The supernatural often lies like the sea at Robertson’s feet and he will not dip in a toe. Yet “The Shelf” gives an impression of dreaming about floating. Ken is troubled by a sinister disruption to his DIY: “Supposing it wasn’t a shelf at all, but the projecting end of a beam, one of the principal timbers in the structure of the building?… Maybe the whole tenement and all the lives it contained were held up by this apparently insignificant useless bit of wood.” We can dutifully contemplate Ken’s angst if we must, but the uncanny here seems to be an end in itself. The glamorously gloomy “Bastards”  does not need to mention Edward Hopper by name to announce that it is another exercise in atmosphere (although Shandon’s puzzlement at finding himself “waiting” for the mysterious, featureless barman also conceivably refers to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot).
Some of these stories hinge upon a single ambiguity of perfect symmetry. The suffering hero of “Facing It”  may be genuinely dying or else his crisis may be more existential than bodily. In “MacTaggart’s Shed”  Christie is either going to confront the mobsters with his “stash of weapons in the attic” or else Malky is right that the local murders (and Christie’s weapons) “got inside yer heid fae the telly.”
“Screen Lives” and “What Love Is” are uninterested in clambering out of the kitchen sink, but they are thematically more articulate than Robertson’s atmospheric pieces. In the former story, Shona is not necessarily being rebuked for her pleasure-seeking – for one thing, there is no apparent alternative to it – but her life needs to offer more than a blank screen on to which other lives are superimposed. She is only actually happy when she and her office fling Devlin are imitating scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious. In the latter story, Joan learns that love is synonymous with “courage.” Her crisis is not that she and her husband have been unadventurous within their own lives, but that they have not sufficiently cared about each other’s. We may distrust the easiness of the epiphany, however, and suppose that the application is another thing.
One might assume that Robertson’s best stories would expand upon these dry Chekhovian beginnings, but his strongest tale, “Giraffe”  is pleasantly lacking in gravity. We are invited to compare some despondent safari park exhibits (“These lions are fucked… There’s nae fuckin lion left in them”) with their demoralised keepers. Does the depiction of the giraffe Eilidh being fatally tyrannised by a rat correspond with that of Eck being fired by the boss Murray? Eck is fired “on the pan,” just as Eilidh dies slipping on her own sharn (dung). The workers imagine Murray reclining on a giraffe skin, a picture of oriental despotism.
We may agree that an unregulated safari park ironically reflects too much of the natural world, with the weak being devoured. Yet the animals actually show greater resilience than the park’s human captives. The baboons escape from the park and end up gate-crashing a funeral, perhaps symbolising that they have more evolutionary road ahead of them than the local humans. Unless Eilidh is destined to redeem the other animals through a virgin birth, she is unexpectedly impregnated at the end of the story, indicating the endurance of animal instincts. We may expect to discover at the story’s conclusion that Eilidh had helped the park’s absconding monkeys to freedom by lifting them over the fences. Perhaps this Virgin Mary has elevated the apes and they have ascended to grace. “Giraffe” instead ends from the human perspective with a hellish eruption of maggots, cockroaches, and decomposition.
In its own way, “Giraffe” makes the case that the workers should have a revolution, but their unrevolutionary attitude seems to be at once unnatural and inescapable. Robertson’s best stories plonk down a somewhat defective scenario or symbol in front of us and then demand our endorsement. “Republic of the Mind” asks us whether Robert and Kate’s revolution is good enough. Wryly twisting the meaning of Gil Scott-Heron’s line “the revolution will not be televised,” the only revolutionary political act in this story comes when Kate throws a wine bottle through the television screen during election night, “turning off” politics with a final picture of the “minister’s exploding face.” Nonetheless, Robert and Kate seem like practical people and they will probably buy a new TV in the end.
If Robert’s political independence is purely “of the mind,” this may be too smug and declarative to win over the reader. His republic is built upon the precious, intimate “moments that stood out of daily life like islands in a loch…” The danger is evidently of mystifying politics and of politicising intimacy. One could hardly tell the survivors of a pogrom to seek solace in the republic of the mind. Robert’s republic may seem like ointment for an existential itch, rather than freedom for the genuinely oppressed. An important concession has been made when amending Robert’s “republic of the mind” to Robertson’s Republics of the Mind. The former potentially confirms Thatcher’s supposed maxim, “There is no such thing as society.”
Robert’s retreat into his own mind generates a tirade of symbolism which is increasingly remote from communal sense. Perhaps when Robert’s nation secedes from the Union it will be like getting a blowjob on the day of his father’s death. Or like wanting to let a kite “fly off like a real thing, like a live thing.” The story ends with Robert alone in his republic, communing with a hallucinogenic seal and trilling “I love you, I love you, I love you.” Political disengagement similarly engenders the loneliness and relativism which we witness in the later story “Don’t Start Me Talkin’ (I’ll Tell Everything I Know) . George is led towards damnation by the same blues music which inspires his customer to feel “she was on the edge of discovering something.”
One may glean further warnings about political disengagement from “The Jonah” . With its pointed passing references to AIDS, the Sony Walkman, and the privatisation of British Gas, this story essentially offers a retrospective on the 1980s. The protagonist, Billy, is initially anxious to escape this moneymaking decade: “No more wage-slavery. If you had a paid-for roof over your head and nobody depending on you, you wouldn’t need much in the way of an income.” Still, in wishing to bury himself in a place where “nobody knew him,” Billy ultimately endorses the Thatcherite rejection of community and social obligation. If Billy is to be reconciled with the idea that there is such a thing as society, he will need to do more than moan about the privatisation of Scotland’s forests (which he also aspires to profit from). The ordinary man is not a Jonah and Billy will have to ultimately come to terms with his nihilistic, ne’er-do-well pal Sean.
Robert and Billy are exiles in their own country; they have abandoned Scotland’s people but they still linger upon its soil. The narrator of “The Claw” , on the other hand, returns from New York to learn from his dying grandfather. The old man assumes that his grandson enjoys a life of opportunity, unaware that he has actually contracted HIV. The grandson pines after the “happy, excited trust in the transport of the future” which had characterised his grandfather’s younger days. He assumes that he has shared something of his grandfather’s experiences in WW1 by losing so many of his own friends to AIDS.
This young man ends up more demoralised and fatalistic than his dying grandfather, but his story at least ends with a cry for freedom: “I can’t stand the thought of invalids. Of being at the mercy of others.” We may distrust the narrator’s heebie-jeebies. Despite the grandfather’s proximity to death, he can still command of life, “Take it!… You’ve nothing to lose.” The hero of “Willie Masson’s Miracle”  likewise strikes a blow against lethargy in his final days. We may wonder why God should give a dying man a “miracle,” but this is to deny the miracle of Willie’s own willpower. Reiterating the image of the grandfather’s “claw,” Willie’s lifeless hands cause him to remember “the cold corpses in the fishmonger’s window, all dead-eyed and flat-faced…” The fish may be an ancient symbol of Christian redemption, but it corresponds here with a brief, magnificent return of human power. In “Republic of the Mind,” Robert’s father had been similarly inspired by Christianity’s humanism.
The setting of “Sixes and Sevens”  vaguely recalls the Craiglockhart War Hospital, where the poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon had recuperated from their war trauma. The narrator of this story becomes trapped in a ruined hospital, just as the characters throughout Republics have invariably found their nation to be more of a prison than a place of healing. Dr Muir complains about the hospital that, “If they looked after it, it would still be standing years after all the modern places had fallen down.” Although this may well pass comment upon the current state of Scotland, the narrator counters that, “there’s no point in being sentimental about the past, is there?”
It is not that Robertson’s characters are seizing independence, but that the old authorities and certainties are breaking up. “Dr” Muir may be a “patient,” the hospital is terminated, the narrator is rambling, and everything topples back into the past. Most of this narrative may be even a vague, lethargic dream of freedom from which the “narrator’s” grandfather awakens at the end of the story.