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Thought ‘Poor Things’ was weird? The novel is, too — in a good way.

Emma Stone, left, and Mark Ruffalo in “Poor Things.”  (Searchlight Pictures)
By Michael Dirda Washington Post

There was once a slogan, “You’ve read the book. Now see the movie.” These days, if one is lucky, the opposite might apply. But still I wonder: If you loved “Poor Things,” the Oscar-nominated film starring Emma Stone, will you read the book? That would be Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel, “the most sheerly entertaining pseudo-Victorian romance since A.S. Byatt’s ‘Possession,’ ” as I put it in my 1993 review of the American edition. Gray – who died in 2019 at the age of 85 – was arguably the major Scottish literary figure of the 1980s and ’90s. “Poor Things” is just one title in his wide-ranging bibliography, though he singled it out as his “happiest novel.”

An artist and a writer, Gray spent eight years working on his first book, a sprawling semi-autobiographical phantasmagoria called “Lanark,” which appeared in 1981, when he was 46. It was widely acclaimed a masterpiece, even likened to a Scottish version of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” In its pages, Gray interlaces two storylines: One focuses on the life and education of a Glasgow painter named Duncan Thaw, while the other follows his alter-ego, Lanark, in a dystopian future ruled by an Institute, Council and Foundation. While Thaw struggles to find love and achieve “enough courage and happiness to die without feeling cheated,” his other self must navigate a kind of hellish fun house of distorting mirrors and shape-shifting enemies, where the sun never shines and people turn into dragons. Both selves eventually recognize that “a good life means fighting to be human under growing difficulties.”

Gray’s subsequent novel, “1982, Janine” (1984), as well as “Something Leather” (1990), again pushed literary boundaries – but this time by using erotic fantasies to critique sexual and societal norms. As a committed democratic socialist and opponent of modern-day corporations and conglomerates, Gray believed that “the world is only improved by people who do ordinary jobs and refuse to be bullied.” He regularly exhorted his readers to “work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” Little wonder, then, that his 1992 monograph, “Why Scots Should Rule Scotland,” tracks the centuries-long history of how England and its ruling classes consistently denigrated and exploited Scotland. It ends: “I believe an independent country run by a government not much richer than the People has more hope than one governed by a big rich neighbor.”

That same year, Gray brought out “Poor Things.” On opening its first edition, the unsuspecting reader immediately discovered a “Blurb for a High-Class Hardcover” and below it a “Blurb for the Common Reader.” (Both are dropped from the recent movie tie-in paperback.) Such literary playfulness characterizes much of Gray’s fiction, as does his fondness for working variations on the classics of the past. “Poor Things,” for example, pays homage to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and Wilkie Collins’s “The Moonstone.”

It begins in the late 1970s, when a venerable Glasgow law office discarded several old-fashioned box files. Inside one of these a professional scavenger discovered a book titled “Episodes From the Early Life of a Scottish Public Health Officer,” written by Archibald McCandless. Eventually, this dull-sounding item made its way to Gray, who decided to reissue the work under the title “Poor Things,” along with illustrations, a letter verifying its authenticity, and numerous critical and historical notes. All this editorial apparatus makes it deliciously difficult for the reader to distinguish the real from the imaginary from the impossible.

For the story that Dr. McCandless gradually unfolds is very bizarre indeed. The son of a Scots peasant woman, McCandless scrapes along at Glasgow University, studying to be a doctor. There in the early 1880s, he meets Godwin Bysshe Baxter, a reclusive medical researcher who seems to live on nothing but briny vegetable juice. Despite an atmosphere of the uncanny surrounding the eccentric scientist, he and McCandless gradually become friends.

After some months pass, Baxter one day invites McCandless to meet his niece Bella, who, it turns out, is beautiful but oddly childlike for a grown woman: “Hell low God win, hell low new man,” she says when introduced. McCandless concludes she must be either an idiot or an amnesiac. “You are wrong about the brain damage,” Baxter answers. “Her mental powers are growing at enormous speed. Six months ago she had the brain of a baby.” At which point, he reveals his secret: “For years I had been planning to take a discarded body and discarded brain from our social midden heap and unite them in a new life.” Bella is the result.

From this point, “Poor Things” puts aside, at least for a while, some of its spookiness to become a witty novel of ideas, the history of a female Candide in a strange new world. Bella’s intellect increases rapidly during her travels with “God,” her telling abbreviation of Godwin (whose name also recalls William Godwin, the source of the utopian ideas that run through his Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”). Later, Bella elopes with a rakish lawyer, learns the joys of “wedding,” visits gambling dens (where she bumps into a Russian who just might be Dostoevsky), works enthusiastically in a Paris brothel, and eventually encounters an American evangelist and a cynical British colonialist named Astley: “I dislike intoxicating fluids,” the latter says. “I prefer the bitter truth.” Naturally, he falls in love with Bella.

I should say no more, except to add that “Poor Things,” like John Fowles’s Victorian pastiche, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” leaves the reader with multiple endings, while allowing a few mysteries to remain not quite resolved, among them the precise nature of Godwin Baxter. It’s all terrifically enjoyable.

For much of his life, Gray supported himself and his family, barely, as a painter, muralist and teacher while turning his hand to every sort of writing, including stage plays, radio dramas and short fiction. For instance, in the often Kafkaesque “Unlikely Stories, Mostly” (1983), he presents a philosophical dwarf who is rewriting the biblical creation myth, a riveter whose body gradually divides into two matching but fiercely antagonistic men, and an unnerving white dog out of pagan folklore. In fact, “unnerving” sums up the whole collection.

Not so, the easygoing personal essays assembled in “Of Me and Others” (2014). In them, Gray recalls his working-class childhood, early reading, favorite teachers and fellow writers, as well as the origins of his various books. Other essays emphasize his admirable political convictions and ethical beliefs: “The more just society is, the more essential to it is everyone’s work, and the more equal their incomes.” “God should not be searched for but worked for, by cultivating the small piece of world in our power as intelligently and unselfishly as possible.”

Because “Lanark” is so daunting, I’d recommend that readers new to Gray start with “Poor Things,” then go on to the short but equally scintillating “The Fall of Kelvin Walker” (1985). This “fable of the ‘60s” tracks its seemingly guileless protagonist as he charms and connives his way to media stardom. Kelvin starts his ascent by pretending to be a fellow Scot named Hector McKellar, who “had managed an increasing number of jobs in a manner which attracted neither criticism nor praise. He was dependable and dull, but not outstandingly dull and if this is not the quickest way to advancement it is the surest.” But Kelvin – wanton, shrewd, well-spoken and ambitious – is anything but dull. And neither is his story, told with astringent wit.

That said, reading even the most delightful book requires some effort compared with casually switching on the television or watching a flickering screen at the neighborhood cineplex. We human beings do love action and spectacle, fine acting, and snappy repartee, all of which Hollywood very entertainingly delivers. Nonetheless, written works possess nuances, quirks of style, and complexities of thought and argument that can only be hinted at through pictures and dialogue. Neither can a film easily handle fiction’s paramount achievement – the presentation of interiority, our immediate access to the intimate thoughts and inner lives of a novel’s characters. All too often, though, we shortsightedly regard books as simply the larval stage of films. They aren’t. Movies like “Poor Things” – or “Dune” or the multipart TV epic “Shogun” – may be quite wonderful, but the novels they are based on, by Alasdair Gray, Frank Herbert and James Clavell respectively, are more wonderful still.