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The Ossians by Doug Johnstone

The Ossians are the loud-and-proud Scottish indie band comprised of drug-addled frontman Connor, his twin sister Kate, his girlfriend Hannah and his mate Danny. The novel follows The Ossians on a tour of various grubby backstreet pubs around the Scottish coast. The band’s name is a reference to a third century bard who did not exist. Despite constant narcotic impairment, Connor takes pride in the fact that his music has a cerebral element and various layers of meaning – simple foot-tapping is not the order of the day here. Unfortunately, cultural pretensions don’t count for much when Connor can’t pay his dealer and is compelled to be a drug mule, sneaking away from his band to meet an assortment of shady characters along the tour route.

To begin with I felt the characterisation was shaky. Is it possible for a book to be too cool for a reader? – I wondered, whilst struggling through the first chapter. These crazy kids seemed to have it all: brains, looks, adoration, money, limitless drugs and drink, sex on tap and breathtaking talent. I hated them. Connor particularly got up my nose. Despite many middle class advantages in life, he was whiny and self-pitying as he took every drug he could get his hands on, presumably to numb The Pain. He also constantly insulted his audience and treated the members of his band like inferiors. I struggled here because I thought I was being asked to identify with Connor, even to be impressed by this strutting rock god. Then it came to me that Connor was not being held up as the King of Cool. Far from it, as he began to unravel, eating nothing, taking more and more drugs, suffering from halluncinations and irrational thinking, I suspected that Connor was being offered as an interesting screw-up. Eventually, he says of himself:

I’m the biggest fuck-up you’re ever likely to meet. I’m a complete arsehole, a selfish wanker, a pretentious dickhead. Just ask the rest of the band if you don’t believe me.

There is a dialogue within the novel about what it means to be Scottish, the characters picking apart assumptions about Scottish identity and peering at these issues through a drugged-out lens that seemed paradoxically both idealistic and jaded. Comparisons with Trainspotting are perhaps inevitable.

This was his country, a drunken dickhead making racist remarks in a pub. This was Scotland, a friendly wee woman with an expert knowledge of British navy ships and fish-farm murderers getting their old jobs back and dead seagulls on piers and Ecstasy and coke and angelic stalkers following your every move and ridiculous drug deals under cover of darkness and ketamine pills and punches to the face and swigging straight gin and dead seals on beaches and stealing pills from hospital patients and Christmas shoppers in November and speed and hash and bad weather and English students and beautiful landscapes and whisky and more gin.

The darkness in The Ossians reminded me of Ron Butlin’s Belongingthough the subject matter is different, the poetic descriptions, the postmodern bleakness and even the young male Scottish protagonists are similar.

There is some seriously impressive writing in The Ossians. The imagery of inner city and remote wilderness is stunning. The chapter set in Durness, in which the mesmerised Ossians watch a frigate firing rounds at the Cape Wrath military range, and feel the shockwaves as Harriers and Tornadoes drop thousand pound bombs on Garvie Island, was beautiful and thought-provoking. Likewise, the chapter set in Ullapool was brilliantly done: rowdy Russian submariners brought much needed light relief to an otherwise bleak stage of the band’s emotional and geographical journey.

If I did not entirely relish the beginning of The Ossians, I was blown away by the ending. The scene in which Connor at his lowest ebb wanders miles into the moor, finally coming to Corrour Station, was almost too painful to read. By the final page, I was totally intrigued by Connor. On the one hand, I agreed with his self-assessment as outlined above, but on the other hand I didn’t want to stop reading about him. Can you enjoy a novel where the main character infuriates you? I would say you can.

The Ossians by Doug Johnstone. Viking. ISBN-13: 978-0670917433. 304 pages. £12.99

The Ossians MySpace page can be found here. The Independent’s review of The Ossians, here. The Ossians is Doug Johnstone’s second novel. For a review of Johnstone’s first novel, Tombstoning, click here. For our interview with Doug Johnstone, click here.

14 comments on “The Ossians by Doug Johnstone

  1. rosyb
    June 21, 2008

    Interesting what you say about being asked to identify with character. That’s something I might have to return to. It doesn’t sound like the author is uncritical of the mc here. But it sounds a bit like it is unclear what the authorial attitude is at the beginning…I suppose authorial attitude of any kind is deeply unfashionable at the moment although I think you do get a sense of it without authorial intrusion and it is still more important than a lot of people like to acknowledge.

    I found this first chapter that readers can take a look at:

    Click to access PT_Ossians.pdf

    I’m curious as to what “cool” means here as that was something I saw in another review. Just wondered what that meant – the writing or the character himself?

    I like the sound of the unravelling. I like movement through a book.

  2. Jackie
    June 21, 2008

    Your description of Connor reminds me of Kurt Cobain, I wonder if the author is aware of the similarities. He must be. The contrast between the band and the scenery sounds interesting and I can tell from the excerpts that the author is quite descriptive. Reading about such an unlikable character would be intriguing, I wonder how much the reader’s response plays into the emotions of the book?

  3. Lisa
    June 21, 2008

    Jackie, yes, I think you’re onto something there. In the novel Connor has a phone that his drug dealer gives him so that he can check up, and the ring tone? Nirvana’s “Smells like teen spirit”…

    Rosy, yes, the unravelling was fascinating. Originally I thought there was an authorial voice there trying to present these people as ambassadors of Cooldom, but perhaps the point was to present these people who seem stereotypically ‘cool’ at first glance, but who are actually quite vulnerable and needy.

    The writing was more ‘literary’ than I’d expected. There was a lot of intertextuality, and also deep exploration of its themes. I had expected a fast-paced rollicking adventure, but it wasn’t quite like that. Really hard novel to categorise. Another one of its strengths is the sense of place. It’s meticulously researched and it offers a tour of Scotland for the reader. Incidentally my publisher is based in Ullapool, so have a new insight there…

    P.S Corrour Station is on Loch Ossian (!) and it’s famous for its inclusion in Trainspotting – I think I’m right in saying it’s where Ewan McGregor rants about being Scottish (been a while since I’ve seen the film). Really liked that intertextuality. Clever book.

  4. Moira
    June 23, 2008

    Mmm. This sounds like something I might enjoy in the right frame of mind … I love books with a real sense of place – wherever that place is.

  5. marygm
    June 23, 2008

    Very good review, Lisa. I like the sound of this book. Was the author giving his characters all the things our modern world values and then showing how inadequate they are, do you think? That was the question I was thinking of from your review anyway.

  6. Lisa
    June 23, 2008

    Thanks Moira and Mary. Mary, yes, I think he was. You know, I think it’s a novel that I’d one day go back and read again. Be interesting to read the start of The Ossians, knowing how it was all going to end up.

  7. Sam
    June 23, 2008

    But why oh why could not an editor have taken a red pen to the ‘biting wind’ in the second sentence? I was just getting over that when I tripped up on the ‘tousle of black hair’. Took me nearly half a page to recover, but then I got run over by a ‘chugging bus’. Lise, I think PRT contained much more ‘seriously impressive writing’ (he said, brown-nosingly. And I know, I know: I should read the whoe book before making definitive judgements).

    Is the whole ‘cool’ thing down to quotes like these do you think?

    ‘Modern life is rubbish,’ he said, smiling.
    ‘Great,’ said Kate, sweeping his chaotic fringe away from his face to expose tired green eyes and a pallid, taut frown. ‘Now you’re quoting Blur. You must be drunk.’ [page 3]

    and:

    ‘I hope you find what you’re looking for,’ he said, picking up the stepladder and heading off.
    ‘Almost a U2 quote,’ said Kate. ‘Scary. What next, someone quoting Abba at us? The winner takes it all?’ [page 7]

    It’s not the quotes themselves – I get it’s about a band, and the characters may well quote song lyrics – but it’s more that the author seems very keen to get across to the reader that they’re quotes from bands. This might just be to help some readers out but – inadvertantly or not – it kinda gives the impression that he’s asking the reader to be complicit in the quoted-ness of it all, to almost provide some applause for the reference made. (I don’t feel I’ve explained this at all well.) And, anyway, if they’re always quoting songs lyrics to each other, would they even need to acknowledge that a song lyric had been quoted? Wouldn’t it just be, yanno, like butters, man, butters.

  8. Lisa
    June 23, 2008

    Thanks Sam 🙂

    And yes, the lyrics. I think another review I read of The Ossians picked up on the same thing. I’m the sort of eejit who needs these lyrics pointing out, as I’d probably never spot them otherwise. Having said that, perhaps having characters point them out to each other doesn’t quite ring true.

    Funny you mention the tussle of black hair, as for ages I imagined Kate as being fair-haired.

    I think my initial impression of the book feeling too cool for me also came about as for the first few chapters the writing made me feel very old and a bit, dare I say square []

    [] <that’s me… nearly a square.

    Interesting book though. Never before read anything like it.

  9. rosyb
    June 24, 2008

    Just peering round the net this morning and found this review which seemed to tie in with a lot of what you were saying. Describes the main character as having ‘”a knowing self-destructive streak and a cowardly self-importance” that both fascinates and repels.’
    http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/the-ossians-by-doug-johnstone-804299.html

    It also said this:

    “Johnstone cleverly floats the red herring of national identity over the deeper anxiety of Connor’s 24 years of “pampered, middle-class living, with scarcely a story to tell down the pub”…”

    Am quite interested in this national identity and Scottishness theme that you were talking about. Just wondered what you felt was the conclusion being drawn – are the myths and cliches of national identity being compared to the myths and cliches of what it is to be a rock star do you think?

    (LOL just realised you linked to that already – sorry! Just shows I don’t look at our links well enough! Still interested in what you think is being said about the above though…)

  10. Sam
    June 24, 2008

    In the interests of balance, there’s also ‘The Sunday Times’ review by up-and-coming critic Chris Power linked below:

    http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article3504161.ece

    ‘Not unlike the musicianship of many indie bands, Johnstone’s writing is proficient without ever blowing you away. The Ossians are a likeable bunch with whom it’s pleasant enough to while away a few hours, the only real complaint being that Connor, like Clap, suffers a believable but tedious inability to be eloquent […] Connor, meanwhile, frequently shoves his battered trains of thought into the sidings by concluding “what ridiculous pish”, which makes you wish he hadn’t bothered taking time out from his breakneck self-medicating in the first place.’

  11. Lisa
    June 25, 2008

    Rosy, I’m not sure I thought that the national identity element was a red herring as such. Connor seemed to be looking for something, clinging onto various ideas to give him some sense of self. He seemed quite empty. The character is 24 but he has an almost teenagerish quality to him. He goes through various fads: Scottish history, obscure literature and music, the band itself. But despite his unhappiness, on paper, at least, he seems to have had quite an easy life of it, and most of his problems have been of his own making. The review mentions the lack of stories to tell down the pub, and the tour, the quest if you like, seemed to be about experiencing something worth telling people about. Something worth writing a song about maybe.

    Obviously I can’t say what the author’s intentions were but in answer to your question: “are the myths and cliches of national identity being compared to the myths and cliches of what it is to be a rock star do you think?” it hadn’t occurred to me but maybe.

    Sam, ‘pish’ is now my new favourite word. The ‘breakneck self-medicating’ was exhausting to read about btw. So many drugs. I wanted to sit Connor down and force him to eat something. He doesn’t eat anything for about a week, poor man. Characterisation-wise, at first I was surprised that the other members of the band didn’t intervene more. But then it’s been my experience that addicts can put a tremendous pressure on friends and relatives, and can be so nasty and explosive that after a while you stop fighting them, because it’s so upsetting all around.

    Anyway, I’ll stop going on and on, for fear of talking pish.

  12. Leena
    June 29, 2008

    Well, biting wind or no biting wind, you intrigued me with this one, Lisa 😉

  13. Doug J
    June 30, 2008

    Lisa, let me start by saying a massive thanks for what is probably the most considered and thoughtful review of The Ossians I’ve read.

    Many of your comments were extremely interesting, especially about the likeability or not of Connor. I have always been interested in “difficult” main characters, not necessarily sympathetic, but hopefully by the end the reader at least has some kind of empathy with him. I certainly had no intention of making Connor, or anyone else in the band, ‘cool’. Personally, I can’t think of a worse adjective for anyone or anything.

    Connor is deeply flawed, but some of my favourite books revolve around similarly disturbed and difficult individuals – the work of David Gates springs to mind, or Chuck Palahniuk, Irvine Welsh, Bret Easton Ellis, even some Iain Banks. You should check out John Niven’s recent Kill Your Friends, which I thought was awesome, about a completely amoral bastard working as an A&R guy in the music industry in the Britpop years. Compelling yet also repellant.

    Safe to say, reaction to Connor has been mixed, but I was trying to prove you could spend 300 pages with someone who you wouldn’t necessarily want to share a pint with. Whether I succeeded or not is down to the reader I guess.

    What else? The national identity wasn’t a “red herring” as you rightly said, it was the main theme of the book, kind of. I wanted to try and tie in Connor’s search for meaning in his own pampered life with his and his country’s search for a meaningful identity. The juxtaposition of rural Scotland and rock ‘n’ roll was another thing I wanted to explore, and Rosy, you’re right, I was trying to tie in the myth of national identity with the myth of rock ‘n’ roll, both empty promises. Ultimately, of course, Connor doesn’t find a home, or meaning, or anything, really, which was kind of the point.

    And of course there were references to James Hogg’s Justified Sinner, RLS’s Jekyll & Hyde etc, etc, all that duality of human nature stuff (the stalker is like the inverse of Hogg’s devil in Justified Sinner, even including his name…)

    I was glad you liked the sections around Corrour, the walk across Rannoch Moor and the subsequent chapter at Loch Ossian were the most satisfying to write, and I hope were the most successful bits of the book – I certainly tried to build up a momentum to that point, anyway.

    Anyway, that’s about it, I think. Thanks all for a thought-provoking review and discussion, and all the best with your own writerly endeavours.

    Cheers,
    Doug

  14. Doug J
    July 1, 2008

    …oh, and Sam, you’re probably right about the need for a stronger editorial hand at the start of the book. I have a strange habit of overwriting the beginnings of novels, something I can only ever spot after the event. It was the same with my first novel Tombstoning. The Ossians gets into its stride and gets a rhythm after a while, I feel, although readers may well disagree…

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This entry was posted on June 21, 2008 by in Entries by Lisa, Fiction: general and tagged , , , , .

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