searching the terms paranoia and paranoiac in specialized dictionaries
and medical treatises, I suddenly found myself at a loss, as the
variety of syndromes and manifestations is so wide, that the reader
may well wonder, at the end, whether his own behaviour can be described
as normal or abnormal. We may as well wonder whether all these umbrella
terms have been invented by the medical science in order to find
an excuse for whatever we believe to be deviant in our own social
behaviour, or the human behaviour itself can be characterized by
so many slippery or hidden meanders that few individuals can actually
escape being labelled as paranoiacs.
However, the common point of all definitions is that paranoia can
be regarded as a “functional disorder in which the symptoms
of delusions of jealousy, and delusions of either grandeur and/or
persecution, cannot be explained by other disorders such as schizophrenia,
organic mental disorder or organic brain syndrome.… The delusions
develop insidiously and become knit together into a rational and
coherent set of beliefs that is internally consistent and…
compelling and vigorously defensible. In paranoia, intellectual
functioning is unimpaired and the paranoiac is quite capable of
coherent behaviour within the delusional system.”1
Writers, either great or minor, have built, along the time, a whole
gallery of paranoic characters, and I would quote great masters
of literary portrayal, from Dostoyevsky to Joyce, and from Virginia
Woolf to Kafka or Marin Preda, whose characters fight against uncommon
individual, social or political problems.
Although never individualized as such and however great the tribute
these characters have to pay to a particular literary epoch or context,
their minds bear the imprint of a deviant destiny and a distorted
way of perceiving the outer world.
Among the modern Scottish writers who have brought a remarkable
contribution to the setting up of the most fascinating literary
paranoic universe, James Kelman holds a prominent place. A Glaswegian
by birth, spirit and education, Kelman is himself a product of a
typically hyperindustrialized society. He confesses belonging physically
and spiritually to a community of simple–minded working class
His characters are hardly ever particularised by name. Most of them
are HE or SHE, shifting to I, at times, when the rambling of their
thoughts requires. The writer rarely states the social status of
his heroes, however we feel they belong to the masses. None of them
displays higher education, nevertheless they can be differentiated
according to the type of activities they perform, the temperament
and the degree of tenseness that draw up the dimensions of their
drama. A character called Fr. Fitzmichael, for example, has got
minute scientific knowledge of Botany and Zoology, but has the obsession
of his own Spirit too. His own drama lies in a frustration that
lurks behind the impossibility of having higher intellectual communication
from his position. We could well think of him as being severely
mentally affected by what might be called dual personality. We assume
he might be a gardener or a guardian, but he thinks of his Superiors
in terms that would easily induce us into suspicions of Masonic
organizations. Had it not been for the linguistic register used,
varying from esoteric to sublime poetic rhythmicity, we could have
easily imagined the character as one of vulgar insanity.3
a trio of ants had appeared on the tips of his toes. With a smile
he leaned to cuff at them with a flick of his overgarment. Such
things are we brought to. The condition being a Triumvirate of Hymenopterous
Insects on the tips of one’s toes. Hello. His call to a passing
Brother was greeted with an astonishing raising of the eyebrows.
He waved. November. A month of the Spirit. Spirit and Dismality
Street Sweeper is a short story able to shock in a different way.
Peter, the title hero, believes he is being spied on by a store
of detectives. The linguistic register of his thoughts varies from
vulgar four-letter terms, meant to relieve him of his stress, to
law terminology, as if he were already subject of a trial.
Ah but he was sick of getting watched. He was. He was fucking sick
of it. The council have a store of detectives. They get sent out
spying on the employees, the workers lad the workers, they get sent
out spying on them.5
language abounds in taboo words, undoubtedly hard to stand for traditional
readers of traditional texts – an element of realism which
gives vividness and strength to this most true-to-life character.
Sometimes the use of the vernacular in an interesting blending of
sophisticated and common words – often demanding being read
aloud, so that we can make full sense of what is being meant –
results in a hilarious effect. Blasphemous words associated to sacred
notions are frequent, especially to the end of the story, when Peter
needs to release his anger and frustration. Although Peter, in this
short story, has little education if none, he is an intelligent
guy – or maybe cunning? – the danger he has been grasping
is there: the gaffer dismisses him, as Peter is caught “wasting”
his time in an attempt to save someone’s life. Here is the
moment when the reader is confronted with the revelation of an unexpectedly
complex character. The harsh streetsweeper goes through moments
of deep humanity, as if someone else were thinking or speaking.
A whirl of feelings is given way to and the reader suddenly finds
himself in front of a mother-like character, hallucinating between
his own sorrow and that of the other. The character seems to be
comforting himself in a sort of magic incantation, able to bring
back hope for both rescued and rescuer: “You’ll be alright
son, he whispered and for some reason felt like kissing him on the
forehead, a gesture of universal love for the suffering. We can
endure, we can endure. Maybe it was a returning prophet to earth,
and this was the way he had landed, on the crown of his skull…”6
James Kelman frequently mentions paranoia and paranoiacs himself,
in the text, not without a trace of smile: “Getting paranoiac
is the simplest thing in the world.”7
The characters of A Situation are probably typically paranoic: Edward,
the invalid, and the latter’s wife are all deviant characters.
Edward, on the one hand, is obsessed by his own sexuality and by
the incestuous relationship with his fiancee’s sister. He
is caught up by his neighbours, the invalid and his wife, while
carefully studying his own penis. A conspiracy seems to haunt his
neighbour’s mind, as he suspects Edward of being a student
and the “walls” of “having ears”. He goes
on, expressing his fears that “most parents hate their children,
just like Romeo and Juliet.”8 His wife, in her turn –
if we leave apart the fun of the situation created – has her
own paranoic behaviour. In her zeal, she finds out everything, about
everybody, by watching them through the letter-box slit. Francis
Spufford appreciates that “obsession interests Kelman greatly”,
the main difference between him and Kafka being that he “is
more concerned with when and how an obsessive eye can become the
natural way to see.”9
The question why a refined writer like Kelman should write about
such people, such events and in such a way can only find its answer
in the disarming words of the writer himself: “As long as
art exists there are no areas of experience that have to remain
The short story universe of this writer is populated by a strange
world of men and women, having everyday worries, like a place to
live, a job, a loving family, frustrations of various kinds, as
well as shades of unexpected sensitiveness that all show them the
pettiness of their existence as contrasted to the perfectness of
the place where they live. The rest of the world all appears to
be as unfriendly, inflexible and alienating as the city itself:
an intricate labyrinth of paranoic dimensions, unable to remain
open or to leave escape for those overwhelmed by its proportions.
1. Reber, Arthur. The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology (1985), 515.
2. online information, April,12, 2002.
3. Kelman, James. “Fr. Fitzmichael,” in The Burn (1992),
5. Ibid., 76.
6. Ibid., 79.
7. Kelman, James. “Lassies Are Trained That Way,” in
op. cit., 155.
8. Ibid., 43.
9. apud Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol.58, 298.