Analysis of James Kelman’s Not Not While the Giro

“Not Not While the Giro” is the title story of James Kelman’s breakthrough collection. Waiting for his giro (unemployment allowance) the hero of this freewheeling black comedy epitomizes the qualities of Kelman’s writing that led one early reviewer to proclaim him “both angrier and funnier than [Samuel] Beckett.” The dark humor and mock-heroic digressiveness of Samuel Beckett are clear influences on Kelman’s style, and the famous lines that close Beckett’s Molloy (“I can’t go on, I’ll go on”) might serve as a précis of this story’s plot. It begins with a Beckettian “bellyful of lamentations”: A penniless bachelor in a rooming house relates the circumstances of his penury and the seeming impossibility of improving his lot. Yet by the end of the story, our hero’s account of his pitiful, going-nowhere existence has evolved into a richly ironic fantasy of independent nomadism, a life of never-ending escape from stagnation. This character has nothing to live for, save his giro (i.e., his means of “going on,” of pointlessly surviving), so he escapes into a fantasy of another sort of “giro”: a circuitous walking trip around the coastal roads of Scotland, or, possibly, an endless hike shuttling between the northern- and southernmost points of Great Britain. Along the way, we are treated to James Kelman’s first truly exceptional performance as a prose stylist and his arrival as a humorous writer.

The story begins and ends in media res, highlighting the unbroken routine of the hero’s life as well as his inability to pin down his roving imagination. He begins with an inventory of his present state of deprivation: He is nearly out of the “one essential luxury” of tobacco, but he does possess a curious asset: his coat. “My coat is in the fashion of yesteryear but I am wearing it. . . . This shrewd man I occasionally have dealings with refused said coat on the grounds of said lapels rendering the coat an undesired object by those who frequent said man’s premises. Yet I would have reckoned most purchasers of 2nd hand clothing to be wholly unaware of fashions current or olden.” The irony of this overly formal diction stems from the vast discrepancy between the hero’s gallant, decorous language and his economic circumstances: the “shrewd man [he] occasionally has dealings with” is not a business associate but a pawnbroker.

Kelman exploits this talent for mimicry to satirize the pomposity and politics of the 1980s British establishment. His character’s mock-ceremonious speech, with its evocations of tradition and authority, embodies a romantic fantasy about British culture and society. Kelman lampoons the aristocratic fiction that sees the British working class either as plucky self-starters “playing the game”—full of cheerful self-reliance and dogged resolution to better their lot—or as dissipated, insolent parasites. By this mythology, poverty is always the fault of the lazy poor. The system of values this mythology depends on never questions the virtues of free-market capitalism; it is a worldview that excludes the reality of the protagonist’s position as an unemployed bachelor struggling to survive.

Though narrated in the first person, this story forecasts Kelman’s later experiments in rendering a first-person experience of reality in more objective, third-person form. The comic tension of its speeches often derives from its convincing mimicry of a richly descriptive, infl ated style of upper-class speech. The polished narrative voice found in the novels of Sir Walter Scott, for example, which speaks in a language of gentle authority and sensitive discernment, richly embroidering the less sumptuous reality perceived by lower-class characters, is put into the mocking mouth of a ne’er-do-well. In other circumstances, presumably, the learning and wit displayed by this character could be put to more productive use; as the protagonist muses, “one’s mental capacities would be bound to make more use of their potential without problems at the fundamental level”—that is, the economic level. The essentially political point of the story is to remind us that an expensive education is not a prerequisite for formidable powers of linguistic invention, and that the economic conditions of this man’s existence prevent him from reaching his potential.

The giro of the title can also refer to a circuit or tour, which is what the protagonist imagines a carefree life to consist of. He imagines the delicious freedom of itinerant begging, not having to depend on government assistance to survive: “The minimum money required. Neither broo nor social security. The self sufficiency of the sweetly self employed.” A giro-free life of independent subsistence is, thus, a life of never-ending “giro,” giro without end. The story’s warmly sardonic climax imagines the carefree existence of the Scottish Coast Road walker. It is the wonderfully inventive, anarchic imagination of the protagonist that makes his life worth living, even in the most brutal conditions.

Kelman, James. Not not while the giro. Edinburgh: Polygon, 1983.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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