The Brilliant and Forever by Kevin MacNeil

Polygon, 2016, 251 p.

 The Brilliant and Forever cover

The Brilliant and Forever (B&F) of the title is an annual literary competition set on a Hebridean island, an island inhabited by humans – and talking alpacas. Everyone (and alpaca) on the island seems to be a writer or at least aspires to that state. The B&F is the highlight of the year and open to outsiders. There are two Decisions to be made, one by the Judges and one by the People. The judges’ winner gets signed up to a prestigious agency and an advance on a book deal.

The situation allows MacNeil to explore different kinds of demarcation. Not only is there discrimination and prejudice between (some) humans and the alpacas but the humans are divided between whitehousers (privileged) and blackhousers (less so) and there is even distinction among the alpacas from the island’s north and its south.

Our unnamed narrator – a devotee of haiku-kery, a culinary style limited to a certain number and kind of ingredients – is best friends with the human Macy and the alpaca Archie, who has the unfortunate habit of dribbling constantly (and therefore has to be accompanied everywhere by his spittoon) and is attempting to promulgate a catchphrase, “It’s like a jazz thing you don’t get.” As a writer himself Archie has entered the B&F – the first alpaca to do so for some time.

The entries to the competition are given in full. If you were to be uncharitable you could say MacNeil has found a way to shoehorn more than a few totally unrelated short stories into the format of a novel but you also have to admit it’s ingenious.

In amongst all this we have the aperçus, “‘Somehow, despite it all, something will be okay. That’s the best anyone can hope for,’” and “‘a writer tells lies to reveal greater truths and a politician tells half-truths to reveal greater lies.’”

The landscape description is a typically Scottish trait, here exemplified by, “In the broad expanse below – the mellow moorland and the flat, mirrored lakes and the muted sea and the sleeping villages – ” (though that lakes really ought to be lochs,) and there was a nice pun I hadn’t seen before; Lance Pharmstrong.

I was not entirely convinced by the stated response to the consequences following on from the People’s Decision but I shall not indulge in any spoilers. MacNeil’s is certainly an idiosyncratic and unique voice in the modern Scottish novel.

Pedant’s corner:- smartass (smartarse, please,) Madison Gardens (Madison [Square?] Garden? It was about cycling so may have been a play on Madison; but it should still be Garden,) mic (it was always mike in my day,) stoved in (staved in,) “out of his cakehole. ‘-you have….’” (comma after cakehole instead of full stop,) “how the majority were voting” (was,) he lay a plastic bag on the table (laid.) Many plus points for the wonderful portmanteau word gloominous as in “gloominous sky”.

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