- Christopher Bowen
Alan Bissett was born in 1975 in Falkirk, Scotland. David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, re-released, was at Number One in the charts that week.
He grew up in Hallglen, a housing scheme on the outskirts of the town and the setting for much of his later work, attending Hallglen Primary School, Falkirk High School, and then Stirling University, where he studied English. After graduating he worked very briefly as an English teacher, before deciding to study for a PhD, supporting himself by selling books in Waterstones. He didn’t get the PhD, but he did publish his debut novel.
This was Boyracers, released in August 2001 by Polygon. He was offered a position lecturing in Creative Writing at Leeds University soon after, which is where he wrote The Incredible Adam Spark (Headline, 2005). In 2004 he moved to Glasgow, originally to take up a teaching position on Glasgow University’s Creative Writing MLitt. In 2007, Alan collaborated with the singer-songwriter Malcolm Middleton (Arab Strap) on the song ‘The Rebel On His Own Tonight’, for the Ballads of the Book album project which matched up Scottish writers like Ian Rankin, AL Kennedy, Edwin Morgan and Alasdair Gray with musicians like Sons and Daughters, King Creosote and Idlewild.
He left Glasgow University in December 2007, and has been working as a full time writer ever since.
Novel number 3, Death of a Ladies’ Man, shortlisted for the Scottish Arts Council Fiction of the Year prize, was published in 2009, also the year in which Alan started working in theatre. His first play, The Ching Room, a co-production between Glasgow’s Oran Mor and Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, ran at both theatres in March 2009 to great critical acclaim, and has since been revived at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre, the Royal Exchange, Manchester, and in Philadelphia. In the same month, Alan debuted his ‘one-woman’ show The Moira Monologues (then known as Times When I Bite) at the Aye Write literary festival in Glasgow. The Moira Monologues, which he wrote and performed himself, had an extended life in 2010, running in a double bill with The Ching Room at the Citizens Theatre and the Royal Exchange, as well as ten sold-out shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in the National Library of Scotland. It is now in development as a series with the BBC. Alan also collaborated with The Moira Monologues’ director Sacha Kyle on The Confidant (Oran Mor, Glasgow and Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, March 2011) and Turbo Folk (Oran Mor) which was nominated for Best New Play at the 2010 Critics Awards For Theatre in Scotland.
In 2009, The Shutdown, a documentary short written and narrated by Alan and made by Adam Stafford, about Alan’s own experience of growing up in the shadow of Grangemouth Oil Refinery, with particular reference to his father’s injury in the refinery flare incident of 13th March 1987, premiered in competition at Edinburgh International Film Festival, IDFA and Silverdocs Documentary Festival in Washington DC. To date, The Shutdown has won or been shortlisted for numerous international awards, including both the Jury and Audience Awards for Scottish Short Film at the Jim Poole Scottish Short Film Awards 2009, Best Short Documentary at the San Francisco Film Festival 2010 and the Palm Springs Shortfest 2010. It was also shortlisted for a Scottish BAFTA in 2011.
Polygon published an updated tenth anniversary edition of Boyracers, including a new afterword by Alan, in April 2011. Pack Men, Alan’s fourth novel and a sequel to Boyracers, was published by Hachette in September 2011, after a launch at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Alan is currently working on a number of projects. A film version of Boyracers is in development with Hopscotch Productions, after receiving Creative Scotland funding; a BBC version of The Moira Monologues is being scripted; and he is working on a show, Nikki and the Gang, for Youth Musical Theatre UK and a new play entitled The Red Hourglass.
He is very much in demand as a live act, and as well as appearing in countless schools across Scotland has performed at prestigious international festivals in New York, Toronto, the Hague, Melbourne, Beijing, Zagreb and Kikinda (Serbia).
Alan Bissett’s writing deals in unlikely combinations: racy young blokes in touch with their feminine sides, Scottish culture wedded to Americana, socialism married to commercialised popular culture, genre fiction matched with formal experimentation.
These giddy and dizzying alignments serve to refresh the comparatively traditional working class Scottish masculinities of a James Kelman or an Irvine Welsh. Not that Bissett himself would particularly appreciate such a comparison. As he asks in a Guardian book blog in 2006: why is it that all new writing, his own included, gets compared to Trainspotting? He has a point:
'Kevin Sampson is the "Scouse Irvine Welsh". Luke Sutherland is the "black Irvine Welsh". Jason Johnson is the "Irish Irvine Welsh" Gautam Malkani is the "Asian Irvine Welsh". Niall Griffiths is the "Welsh Irvine Welsh". Arab Strap are "Jarvis Cocker meets Irvine Welsh". Paul Southern is "James Ellroy meets Irvine Welsh". Gregory Burke is "Tarantino meets Irvine Welsh". William Rhode is "Alex Garland meets Irvine Welsh in Bombay."'
So, I’m going to avoid ‘Bissett meets Welsh’ to briefly pursue a more intriguing if unlikely and neglected crossover: Bissett meets Brett Easton Ellis, the US author of, among other things, American Psycho (1991) and a key influence on the young writer from Falkirk. Boyracers (2001) is Alan Bissett’s first novel. Set in the provincial, reluctantly post-industrial setting of Falkirk, we could not be further away from the sophisticated, globalised, service-oriented culture of contemporary Manhattan in American Psycho. What both novels share, however, is a certain culture of vanity, an insane obsession with surfaces, an unhealthy preoccupation with bodies, along with an insatiable intertextuality. In both Boyracers and American Psycho almost every sentence drips with cultural references to the 1980s. Veering structurally between stream of consciousness and schizophrenia, both texts tune into and out of the different and often disjunctive narratives that comprise their local/global environs. Fittingly, both novels open in music-saturated vehicles, and both close with references to public signs (in American Psycho ‘This is not an Exit’; in Boyracers, ‘YOU ARE NOW LEAVING FALKIRK’) that point to an exterior world beyond the text, but which also gesture to the text itself as a claustrophobic container that neither protagonist nor reader can entirely leave behind.
However, to limit Boyracers to its connections with Ellis’s contemporary classic is ultimately to do a disservice to Bissett. Where Ellis serves up tried and tested dramatic subjects (albeit in powerfully new guises) that are well disposed to dramatic fiction (serial killing, glamour, wealth and power), Bissett takes significantly greater risks in adopting what in different hands might seemsimply trivial, untrendy, parochial subjects (peach schnapps, irn bru, Falkirk) and submitting them to his own infectious energy and youthful, unremitting humour.
Bissett’s second novel, The Incredible Adam Spark (2005), pursues some of the cartoonish qualities already witnessed in the bold, primary colours of Boyracers, extending them to their logical conclusion. Its basic storyline borrows from the world of comic book superheroes as Adam, following a blow to the head, begins to believe he is in possession of special powers. As with Boyracers, the adrenaline-fuelled, Falkirk-inflected prose seems to perform a sort of stylised attention deficit as it jumps hyperactively from subject to subject. Also like Boyracers, The Incredible Adam Spark has a music junky for a protagonist: Adam Spark is hooked on Queen, he works in a fast food joint, and hangs out with his mates. The only difference is that, unlike Alvin in Boyracers, these are no real mates and Sparky is more a figure of fun, exploited, used and abused by those around him. Eighteen going on eight, the protagonist suffers from learning difficulties, and is effectively abandoned by his parents. Adam seems only truly loved by his older sister Jude, and even she is increasingly distracted as she settles into a new life at university. The Incredible Adam Spark has an edge of tragedy about it that is missing from the more friendly, boyish flippancy of Boyracers. Favourably compared with Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and with Forrest Gump, the novel was described in The Big Issue as ‘Bizarre, hilarious and moving’.
In his latest novel, the brilliantly titled Death of a Ladies’ Man (2009), Bissett treats us to a Jekyll and Hyde of a protagonist, Charlie Bain. By day Charlie is an inspirational teacher, an apparently upstanding member of the community; by night he ruthlessly pursues women like white powder through the drug lined streets of Glasgow. Taking its title from Leonard Cohen’s seventh album (released in 1977), Death of a Ladies’ Man is suffused with the musical trademarks of his earlier novels. However, while it shares with them the characteristic racy prose, stream of consciousness experiments and typographical transformations, it is Bissett’s first novel in standard English, his first set outside Glasgow, and his first to openly alienate itself from the unapologetic masculinities that are partially embraced in the earlier work. As Bissett puts it in interview:
'I feel like I've had it with male culture, I really do. It all seems to be founded on entirely the wrong values. I've always liked the company of women. Even the interviews you do with men are always much testier, they usually try to land a couple of blows. Before I wrote this book, I understood feminism intellectually. Now, I've started to feel it.'
Some of Bissett’s most recent work in the theatre expounds these values, notably his so-called one-woman show, The Moira Monologues, which was authored by Bissett and successfully performed across Central Scotland. Bissett's dramatic work has flourished in recent years with his short play The Ching Room in 2009 and his award-winning short film, The Shutdown, in the same year. In Bissett's words, The Shutdown is 'about the eerie presence of the huge Grangemouth petro-chemical refinery in Falkland and a terrible industrial accident which nearly killed my father in 1987.' Bissett is also an occasional song writer (‘The Rebel on His Own Tonight’), budding literary critic (‘The New Weegies’) and talented editor (Damage Land: New Scottish Gothic Fiction, 2001). Most recently Bissett co-edited In the Event of Fire (2009), issue 27 of Scotland’s leading forum for contemporary literature, New Writing Scotland.
His seemingly effortless negotiation of the boundaries between the genres of the Marvel comic and academic criticism help to explain Bissett’s ability to see both sides in the recent debate sparked by James Kelman’s controversial remarks on popular fiction (See The Guardian, 31 August 2009). More crucially, it exemplifies what is by turns most original, unflinching, and unpretentious about Bissett’s fictional output to date.
Dr James Procter, 2009