‘God’s Teeth and Other Phenomena’, by James Kelman

Fifteen years ago, Scottish writer Jack Proctor wrote a Banker Prize-winning book. Since then, he has published five additional novels, short stories, reviews, essays, lyrics, and miscellaneous literary material. He has been invited as a guest writer to the House of Art and Aesthetics, a six-week residency which promises established authors the opportunity to work as mentors within a community of creative individuals. Despite Proctor’s extensive portfolio, every figure of authority involved in the running of the programme, in unity with the collegiate body, is resolute in reducing the protagonist to ‘the guy who won the prize for bad language’. ‘God’s Teeth!’ is the playful rebuttal to a contentious set of questions. 

‘What are you doing here?’
‘My name is so and so and I am a writer.’

For James Kelman, author of God’s Teeth and Other Phenomena, the experience of inauthentic practices at the hand of the literary establishment is personal. So personal, in fact, that the novel, far from simply being a humorous and inventive work of fiction, is a bibliographic account and collation of critical essays concerned with the role and position of the artist within the hierarchies inherent to cultural institutions. The principal role of the educational apparatus – embodied in departmental directors, specialised officers, compliant teachers and administrators – is to safekeep the sovereignty of the Standard English Literary Form. This mindset elevates the ‘Writers of Distinction’ (‘the backbone of English literature’) and separates their work from the ‘restricted vocabularies’ of the minorities, to which Professor Proctor may be ascribed. In the House of Art and Aesthetics, Proctor’s stature is subjected to continuous discredit and ridicule; he is provided with accommodation of an inferior standard compared to his peers and his work is not suitably remunerated. Each word he speaks is met with distrust, or requires the mediation of the higher order language. The protagonist’s apparent acceptance of his exploitation testifies to the endemic and unabating reach of the prerogatives of the broader educational establishment – it is the result of a long-standing familiarity with the unjust workings of governmental structures. The interjection of Elizabethan origin ‘God’s Teeth!’, recurrently ambushing the protagonist’s thoughts, takes the crude edge off the intention of the expletive and manifests the necessity to abide by the ‘horrible nonsense’ imposed by the authority. Yet, this is Proctor’s only linguistic compromise. 

Jack Proctor, like James Kelman, is aware that any disturbance to the system must propagate outward from within the boundaries of the system, thus any teaching he delivers to his students is a dialectic act of mutiny and intellectual subversion. In a particularly sharp passage from the novel, Professor Proctor attempts to educate the graduates on the value of commitment – a topic very dear to Kelman – in the absence of which an act of artistic creation fails to acquire meaning. The episode illustrates the collision between the values imparted by the educational system and Proctor’s subversive pedagogical approach, as the students protest the reading list distributed by the professor. This comprises letters from activists and artists ‘who lived and died in pursuit of justice’, arguably referencing the heroic figures of the accounts gathered in Kelman’s recent publication The State is Your Enemy. When the students lament that the course ‘is about Creative Writing and […] not politics’, Proctor conveys that political matters and artistic creation are indistinct, and that the direct encounter with commitment is essential to any creative endeavour. Here, the reader is reminded of that inextricable continuity that exists between Kelman’s works of fiction, essays, and activist efforts. 

The obligation of the committed writer is a relentless chase of the expressive liberation from the ruling elite’s control; at the same time, he is the one heading the chase, carrying behind a trail of ‘art and tourist industry officers’, ‘politicians, employers, and State authorities’. For Kelman, the run is the route, and to commit to that initial impetus signifies traversing the political, social, and cultural spheres without the secure knowledge of predetermined paths and stable rocks under foot. Proctor’s chase is an uncomfortable stumbling from desolate colleges’ classrooms to provincial venues where his presence is studied by incredulous eyes, his words curtailed or received into a hostile silence, his persona reduced to one single achievement, which is often called into question. If, for Kelman, the understanding of the other necessitates one’s acknowledgement of the validity of the other, the dialogic gap between Proctor and the literary world is an irreconcilable issue of unreadability that resides at a constitutional level. 

The chase must continue until the sighting of the land ahoy. ‘It appears we continue to move’ is Kelman’s dim inscription handwritten in a copy of That Was a Shiver. Kelman gifted the short story collection to fellow Scottish writer Alasdair Gray, with whom he shared the chair of Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow for a period. Until the land comes into view, the act of writing constitutes the only source of sustenance and a mechanism of self-defence in the face of the ‘horrible nonsense’. 

In God’s Teeth, language is treated in emblematic Kelman fashion, with irreverent punctuation and suspended speech, ‘destroyed propositions’ which are juxtaposed to the disciplined language of the authority typified by the House of Art and Aesthetics: ‘She corrected my font over the phone: The House of Art and Aesthetics.’ Through Proctor, we assist in the dissection of the elite’s periphrastic reality, whose high-sounding rhetoric consistently reveals itself in its vacuity: ‘What is a “halfway house”? A house but not a house, a metaphorical house, a thing on its way to becoming a house.’ Jack’s worldview represents that which the House may never truly admit into its state-sanctioned premises – both ideologically and physically, as Proctor is relegated to rudimentary guesthouses deemed suited to his status. He is condemned into his perceived execrable position, his language simplistically rationalised into Lallans, a form of old Scots. 

At its core, the socio-political preoccupation of God’s Teeth refrains from lingering on the threshold between the inside and outside of the space of literature. Rather, it confidently enters the red zone to implant seeds of dissent. On the very first page of the book, Proctor’s inner monologue acknowledges the process of writing as a repositioning of our inner syntax into the outside dimension of the page. Kelman has previously discussed his foremost concern with this dichotomy, which must be understood as constitutive of every linguistic form, including his own. The committed writer draws from the inside of his language, allowing for the authentic voice of a minority group to emerge. Conversely, English literature is written from an outside position, the orthodox stance of a ‘mere observer’ of phenomena. It is executed ‘by people whose primary experience has nothing to do with the process and who know nothing of the process’. The presence of the categorical statement ‘Inside. I was inside’ at the beginning of the novel is significant, for Proctor remains ideologically rooted inside his innate existential condition despite the various physical migrations and positional shifts that will subsequently occur within the dominion of the authority. If Derrida spoke of the inside/outside binary in relation to the notion of undecidability, Kelman’s stance on identity as firmly situated inside his culture has always been definitive and unfaltering.

Despite the exceptional affinity between the author and the protagonist of God’s Teeth, Kelman is not Jack Proctor, and Jack Proctor may not be James Kelman. According to his established practice, Kelman removes himself from the privileged position of spokesperson so that the novel may deviate from offering a representation of a minority culture which is filtered through the author’s particular consciousness. ‘None is my voice. The audience need to know that. But not from me.’ Thus Proctor’s monologues transfer agency from the first person to the third, from the third to an impersonal ‘one’, further confounding the narrative perspective and challenging the very subjectivity of the protagonist (‘I had this strange feeling that it was not me, that I was not’). Proctor is painfully aware of his character’s flaws, openly exposing the prejudice harboured in the language and modes of thought that construe his identity: to create committed art is to hold onto the freedom to express one’s viewpoint, however defective. This is not to be accredited to one consciousness, but to be negotiated and questioned collectively, proactively transgressing the caesurae enforced by institutionalised praxis. 

Both Proctor and Kelman are mindful of the ambition of their chase, the continuous move toward emancipation, the Sisyphean task to indent the cultural dogma and unhinge the cornerstones of the forms on which the literary industry and elitist society are based. Commitment is the chase, and in our chase we must continue to practice artistic creation, even when no land lies ahead. ‘There is no route except the run.’

God’s Teeth and Other Phenomena is published by PM Press

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Federica Giardino

Federica Giardino is a PhD researcher at the Mackintosh School of Architecture. She delivers a curriculum centred on the relationship between urbanism and literature at the Glasgow School of Art. 

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