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A Man-Made Woman : POOR THINGS: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D., Scottish Public Health Officer, By Alasdair Gray (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $21.95; 317 pp.)

May 09, 1993|Merle Rubin | Rubin is a free-lance critic who frequently contributes to The Book Review

Probably a crank, possibly a genius, certainly an original and independent voice, Alasdair Gray, unbowed denizen of the dismal city of Glasgow, has the look of a latter-day William Blake, with his extravagant myth-making, his strong social conscience, his liberating vision of sexuality and his flashes of righteous indignation tempered with scathing wit and sly self-mockery. Like Blake, Gray is an artist who illustrates his own work. His latest book, "Poor Things," has been illustrated and designed by him, its handsome blue-and-silver cover emblazoned with the grimly inspiring motto: "WORK AS IF YOU LIVE IN THE EARLY DAYS OF A BETTER NATION," (quoted from a poem by Denis Leigh, as Gray informs us with his characteristic zeal for acknowledging all sources, real or spurious).

Gray's output has been exciting but uneven: His novella "The Fall of Kelvin Walker" seemed but a pale shadow of the munificent first novel "Lanark" (1981), and his most recent return to the dubious pleasures of pornography, "Something Leather," a flaccid retreat from the high-water mark of energy and intelligence reached in his brilliantly antipornographic pornographic novel "1982 Janine." "Poor Things," however, represents Gray, if not quite at the very peak of his form, then certainly somewhere near it. (It won him the 1992 Whitbread Award as well as the Guardian Fiction Prize in Britain.)

Surrounded by the apparatus of textual scholarship, "Poor Things" purports to be the privately printed memoir of one Archibald McCandless, a late-Victorian Scottish physician, unearthed by a modern-day Glasgow history buff and subsequently "edited" by Mr. Gray in its present form. While the historian who discovered it feels it must be fiction (he's written enough history to know fiction when he sees it), Gray's own "research" convinces him that there is sufficient "material evidence" to prove the story "a complete tissue of facts." And indeed, it is a tissue of fact and fiction, invention and parody that even contains its own rebuttal in the form of a letter written by Dr. McCandless' wife Victoria (a.k.a. Bella Baxter) casting doubt on her husband's version of events.

Archibald McCandless, a poor, but dedicated medical student at Glasgow University, becomes friends with the kindly but monstrous-looking medical genius and eccentric Godwin Bysshe Baxter. (The name is a triple reference to the author of "Frankenstein": Mary Shelley was the daughter of William Godwin, wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, and in her youth had a Scottish friend called Isabella Baxter). Godwin Baxter is the kind of scientist drawn to that seemingly irresistible 19th-Century pastime of attempting to reanimate corpses and dead body parts.

One day, Baxter introduces McCandless to a beautiful, charming young woman who goes by the name of Bella Baxter but who bears more than passing resemblance to a woman whose pregnant body was fished out of the river. Bella Baxter has the physique of a vigorous woman in her 20s. But, thanks to the fact that her "creator" used the pristine brain of the fetus she was carrying in reconstructing her, Bella has very little memory and is still rather child-like. But she is very bright, and learning fast. " 'Bella,' her creator enthuses, 'has all the resilience of infancy with the stature and strength of womanhood. Her menstrual cycle was in full flood from the day she opened her eyes, so she has never been taught to feel her body is disgusting or to dread what she desires. Not having learned cowardice when small and oppressed, she only uses speech to say what she thinks and feels . . . so she is incapable of every badness done through hypocrisy and lying. . . . All she lacks is experience.' "

Bella, ironically a man-made woman, is a totally natural, liberated, inner-directed personality: forthright, affectionate and full of energy. She quickly becomes engaged to McCandless (one of the first men she's ever met, aside from Baxter), but owing to her lack of experience, decides to run off first with Duncan Wedderburn, a slick ladies' man, because, as she feels, this will give her the experience she is lacking: "The cunning fiend has seduced her with accounts of his debaucheries," Baxter tells a startled McCandless, "and of course he declares . . . he will never abandon her . I asked if she believed this. She said not much but nobody had ever abandoned her before and the change might do her good. She also said that wicked people needed love as much as good people and were much better at it."

Bella's adventures with the rascally Wedderburn take them everywhere from a gambling casino in Odessa to the teeming crowds of North Africa to the cafes and bordellos of Paris. The dissipated Duncan, of course, proves no match for one healthy, uninhibited, honest woman.

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