A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
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 Belonging – though 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.