Whatever they claim to be doing, those who study economics are involved in the worship of money. True enough, a select few wish to gain a better understanding of market mechanisms in order to help those who cannot help themselves (a subject broached earlier on these pages). Yet the majority will more or less admit to being convinced of money's principal weight in the matters of man: everything can be understood as having a monetary value, as bearing a sum, as a credit or debit. The most egregious offender is the aphorism time is money – as if the most precious thing in the universe could be equated with the basest. Such an error is not made, however, in this fine book.
The premise will be familiar not only to students of literature: the pursuit of earthly immortality, a recurring topos in the work of this writer, whose daughter produced yet another work involving eternal life, and who himself inspires the name of one of our novel's protagonists. These actors are the narrator, Archibald McCandless, a bastard son and medical doctor, and his brilliant colleague, Godwin Baxter, also a bastard son – but of the most famous doctor in Scotland. Their vocational prowess notwithstanding, the two men have one thing in common: they are miserably, horribly alone. At least Baxter has an opinion on how to better their lives and those of others:
'If medical practitioners wanted to save lives,' said Baxter, 'instead of making money out of them, they would unite to prevent diseases, not work separately to cure them. The cause of most illness has been known since at least the sixth century before Christ, when the Greeks made a goddess of Hygiene. Sunlight, cleanliness, and exercise, McCandless! Fresh air, pure water, a good diet and clean roomy houses for everyone, and a total government ban on all work which poisons and prevents these things.'
These ideas are neither original nor morally unjustified; they are, in few words, the essence of socialized medicine and the hardly novel concept that health care should not be a profit-generating industry. There are political debates intrinsic to the works of Gray that are unavoidable but, importantly, they are not regrettable. His works may be manifestoes, but they are manifestoes of the human conscience. Is it right that we, the privileged we, have so much while so many have so little, while millions starve and ache and bleed, often in the factories that cater to our basic material needs? Oh, this does indeed sound like a parable, especially when it comes to a young woman who shall be called Bella Baxter.
I spoil nothing of the plot nor its curious resolution in stating that Bella Baxter is a fiction. That is to say, she is a Frankenstein's monster in the guise of a lovely young lady of about twenty-five with a Mancunian accent and good French. She arrives at Baxter's clinic in pieces or a suicide, it is never belabored until much later in our story, as well as thirty-six weeks pregnant. There then occurs a macabre experiment the likes of which we may see in our lifetime but whose result could only develop under the nebulous rubric of science fiction, and the result is both Bella and the existence Bella kept within her, cloven from the world at large. She cannot speak or write or read like a normal adult because she is practically the farthest thing from a normal adult. She gazes in admiration upon her maker, Godwin, whom she calls God, and his assistant McCandless, who will become Candles or just a solitary Candle, as well as her betrothed. A God, a Candle and a Beauty – these are our lovers, our players and the manufacturers of a triangle that ends as all triangles do, in three disparate, unconnected points. The triangle becomes a trapezoid with the appearance of someone we cannot trust, a rakish attorney by the name of Duncan Wedderburn, and despite her engagement to Candles and her rapidly improving speech and abilities, she elects to elope with Wedderburn so that they may wed and burn passionately every night and day. Wedderburn writes a fantastic letter to Baxter that McCandless only hears read aloud. Bella then sends another letter that clarifies their honeymoon around Europe, at which point something of Bella's past returns, something that she might have always known she had – and we will end our exposition right there.
Gray has an obvious agenda to push, but the wheels of his handcart do not squeak. Instead we witness the slow emergence of a fable of titanic proportions, an open window to a Victorian quilt of medicine, morality and questions that may be more easily tackled in retrospect. If Poor Things suffers from one weakness, it is doubtless its reliance on the already-happened, the verifiable facts, the insertion of historical figures (such as this French pathologist). A collection of notes by another Alasdair Gray, the harmless Scottish writer who happened to edit this single remaining copy of some old doctor's memoirs, serves more to distract than instruct, and the effect of the closing sequence may leave the odd reader a tad disappointed if perhaps not surprised. Bella is the centerpiece and the metronome of the tale, which goes and thinks only as fast as she can. How strange then to consider her past life, her life before God and Candles, a life more ordinary than it first appeared to her and to her father:
'You adored him – worshipped him,' cried her father, 'you had to love him! He was a national hero and cousin of the Earl of Harewood. Besides, you were twenty-four years old and he was the only man apart from me you had been allowed to meet. You were the happiest woman in the world on your wedding-day. I hired and decorated the entire Manchester Free Trade Hall for the reception and banquet, and the Cathedral choir sang the Hallelujah chorus.'
Who is the subject of her father's diatribe? That may require some reading. Thankfully, Gray tells a story the way some people eat, by savoring the best parts and not making too much of a mess. One wishes the same were true of the vast majority of our poor and miserable species.