Polygon, 2011, 219 p.
As a Scot I could only warm to a novel that begins – as this one does – with the sentence, “I’m in two minds.” Two minds, duality, or, as the front cover blurb here has it (medically inaccurately I would think) schizophrenia, has been a running theme in the Scottish novel from James Hogg’s brilliant Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner through Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to Angus McAllister’s The Canongate Strangler and beyond. The book has not one, not two, not even three but no less than eight prefatory quotations and its Part One is entitled “The Unbearable Likeness of Being” where our protagonist is named Robert Lewis; an actor cast in the lead role – roles – in a new stage version of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, at least until a new cast member appears. He is attracted to the lead actress Juliette but her interests seem to lie elsewhere. However he has suffered an accident on his bicycle and his tale may be an hallucination – especially given Part Two, “That Small Theatre of the Brain, Lighted,” which starts with Julie’s Narrative. As she waits in the hospital where her man (a writer who suffers from depression) is fighting for his life after an accident on a bicycle, Julie writes down his tale to give her comfort. He is tended to by Nurse Stevenson. The narration flips over to the man halfway through. He has the sense of, “Everything being nested inside something bigger. Images, stories, identities,” and refers to his writing as method imagining.
An unreliable but knowing narrative then, which nevertheless gives MacNeil the opportunity to comment on the state of Scotland, “Edinburgh. Home to a national parish council, an almost powerful parliament indolently bustling with her irreconcilable flow of accurate rumours and unreliable press releases. The tiny capital of our proud-to-be-humble and fighting-to-be-fought-for nation that isn’t a nation, where our Old Testament God has cursed us with a fear of failure and blessed us with a fear of success,” on being Scottish, “I went because I expected to learn how to further extend my range of emotions, harness those joyous emotions for which we Scots are so uncelebrated,” and the national sense of incompleteness, “There is no Scotland. No Edinburgh. They exist in the plural. These are places that have not yet found their true and lasting selves.” Duality isn’t quite enough to contain all Lewis’s (or Scotland’s?) dichotomies: “I contain multitudes.”
Along the way MacNeil throws barbs at the instrumental approach to acting, “‘The greatest deception the devils of method acting ever perpetrated was the myth that method acting is anything better than actual acting,’” and the insecurities of the profession, “‘Jekyll and Hyde. Which. One. Are. You. Being. Now?’”
He also tells us, “Stevenson did not create Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde. He revealed them. Him. Them. He shed the right amount of shadowy light upon that which is within us all.”
That front cover blurb says, “May well be the last, and funniest, word on Scotland’s national schizophrenia.” While I doubt it will be the last such word it certainly has its moments. I’ll be looking out for more MacNeil.
Pedant’s corner:- vocal chords (cords,) “a quickening bourne out of sudden love” (born out of makes more sense,) smartass (smartarse,) “‘The neutrons in the nerves are responding.’” (That would be neurons; but the speaker is confused,) “I have plants out back” (USian; out the back or in the back is more usual in Scotland,) “to help leverage myself up” (to help lever myself up.)