Sunday, October 7, 2007

Alexander McCall Smith/44 SCOTLAND STREET

I thought it something of a spooky coincidence that Kit reviewed another McCall Smith book on here just the other day. I was only reading this out of a misplaced sense of guilt, having suddenly discovered that I still had it on my shelf nearly a year after someone lent it to me.

The origin of this book is rather more interesting than the book itself. The writer was fascinated by the idea of serialising a novel, in the way that many of the great 19th Century novelists did. Then, on a trip to San Francisco, he met Armistead Maupin, whose success with Tales of the City encouraged him to pitch a similar idea to The Scotsman. So, what we have here is the cumulative result of nearly 6 months of daily-published segments from that famous Edinburgh newspaper. Apparently, it has proved to be a terribly popular feature in the paper: I believe it is still running, and has already spawned a couple more 'novels'.

You see that I am sceptical as to whether this really counts as a novel. Daily publishing, I think, is just too frequent. The book is far too episodic and rambling in structure: there's no overall theme or narrative direction. And there are a lot of loose ends and red herrings: characters or plot points that are briefly introduced and then abandoned again.

I wouldn't say McCall Smith is a bad writer, but there's a kind of humdrum efficiency about him. He's relentlessly competent, rather than inspiring. And he does have a few severe weaknesses. He's probably too erudite for his own good: there's a lot of showing off of arcane knowledge for supposedly humorous effect here (and some of the specifically Scottish references require explanatory footnotes). The jokes are so mild as to be virtually non-existent. And the plot development is crashingly obvious: I could foresee almost every single event in the book before it happened.

Worst of all, he can't do convincing dialogue at all. And hence, to my mind, he's poor at characterisation. Frankly, I just didn't believe in any of the people in this book. And even if one made the imaginative effort to suspend disbelief and accept these people as real, I don't think you'd care about any of them. They are mostly very flawed, rather unattractive, often downright irritating people. And, with only one or two exceptions, they are all comfortably well-off upper middle class types - not a social stratum for which I have much affection.

Edinburgh is a notoriously snobbish place, and, while affecting to make gentle fun of this vice, 44 Scotland Street is for me mostly participating in it rather than satirising it.

Presumably this book appeals mostly to people who live in Edinburgh (and recognise the places, the history, the typical 'characters'), or to those who like to daydream of living there. I've spent quite a bit of time in Edinburgh, I love it to pieces, and I do aspire to live there one day - but I found this book merely irksome.

At least the short, self-contained chapters make it an easy page-turner, so I suppose we could classify it as a "beach read". Me, I don't spend much time on beaches. When I am on a beach, I don't generally read. If I were reading, I'd want to read something a bit more satisfying than this.


Kit said...

I was just as spooked when I saw 44, Scotland St come up, because I just started re-reading it myself!

I agree with you that the daily format makes it far too brief and superficial to get into any of the characters and is ultimately unsatisfying, but it is useful to send you to sleep at night.

I might actually put it aside for now, and get into something meatier, unless of course I need a soporific.

Froog said...

Ha! We should add *soporific as a new review category on here.

I don't like to use books that way myself. I prefer a nice malt Scotch.