Poor Things: An Ode to Women and their Choices

I don’t roll in the binary of good and bad so instead of a book review, here’s a meditation on Alasdair Gray’s novel Poor Things.

Poor Things: An Ode to Women and their Choices

Most of the excerpts you've read likely refers to Yorgos Lanthimos’ award-winning film adaptation. The novel on the other hand, is deeply layered and a challenge to accurately summarise without ruining the reader's potential experience. Be warned then that this blog post contains some spoilers for both the book and the film.

I have not read anything as effortlessly feminist as Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things in a long time. I was on a train in the United Kingdom, escaping the heat of Singapore when I finally finished it. From the get-go, I was lured by his style and fell into his world, wanting to devour anything else the Scottish writer had ever written or drawn. Poor Things, is acutely political, but also feels like a self-aware ode to women (even if its author, Alisdair, a man, seems to have the final word). Published in 1992 but patented as his own work in 1988 (the year I was born), Poor Things is a darkly humourous metafictional novel. It pays tribute to Mary Shelley and gothic literature, artfully embedding politics within very human emotions (expressed by men for the most part) presented with a smattering of drawings by the author and historical snippets. I had been reading mostly autobiographies and biographies of women, but it made me fall back in love with fiction and carry the hope that forrealsies, “Not all men…”. I jest, of course.

Apart from the clues in the visual aspect of the novel, here is where the metafiction begins: The author himself is part of the book. I will refer to the real author as such and his character version in the novel as The Editor. I will also differentiate by referring to the fictional manuscript as such, or simply, "the book". In the introduction, Alasdair (The Editor) writes that he was asked to edit a manuscript, by an archivist colleague, one Michael Donelly who while on a stroll, found it amidst a pile of things meant to be disposed and discarded. One of the main themes is established, as the two colleagues take opposing sides on whether or not this work by Archibald "Archie" McCandless is a work of fiction or true accounts of a life, and of lives. You have Michael Donelly, believing it to be a work of fiction, while Alasdair the Editor claims it to be fact and historically true, which he backs by research that supposedly matched the people, places, and timelines (there are historical notes towards the end of the book). A line in the introduction alludes to how this disagreement leads to the eventual end of their friendship. You were meant to be wary about the veracity of the text from the beginning.

You also learn in the introduction that Alasdair the Editor took the liberty to re-name the book “Poor Things” because some of the people in the manuscript would refer to themselves as ‘poor’ (some of the novel's themes include social inequality and classism). There was a letter that accompanied the manuscript which refuted its contents, written by a Victoria McCandless (Emma Stone’s character in the film). Alasdair the Editor, wrote that he chose to make this letter an epilogue instead of a prologue because “it will prejudice readers” and added that “no book needs two introductions and I am writing this one”. A funny guy that Alasdair.

The film adaptation indulges on much of Archie McCandless account in the manuscript (often described in film reviews as a "middle-aged-straight-male fantasy") and makes no reference to the accompanying self-aware and sobering letter written by Victoria McCandless. The author, Alasdair, in contrast, sets it up for the readers early on, so that the reader has preconceived notions of Victoria, describing her as “a disturbed woman who wants to hide the truth about her start in life”. This is someone’s judgment and opinion. You can see it transforming into a kind of He Said She Said. When you finally reach her letter, however, you the reader would have forgotten these sentiments shared and would have just come out of the emotional (and very whimsical) re-tellings of the life she lived by Archie McCandless. The difference between their voices forces you to take a step back. It shakes you awake and pulls you into the present so that you ask yourself: Who do I believe? What do I believe? And why does it matter?

I do not want to argue about whether or not the film captured the spirit of the novel it was inspired by. Instead, I put all my efforts to encourage you to experience this work in its original form. The novel was incredibly nuanced and was able to draw your attention to a woman’s voice and life (whichever version you choose to follow) and how much power it had despite your uncertainty of the truth and the murmurings and mutterings of men. You end up believing her and even rooting for her. No matter how many ‘poor’ characters or voices preceded her epilogue, Bella Baxter aka Victoria Blessington aka Victoria McCandless, is the only one in the manuscript who did not self-identify as a poor person or creature. In a letter (one of the historical proofs The Editor presented) she referred to one of her own written works as "poor" and "neglected", but she was never self-effacing. She never pitied herself; she just kept going. In the end, it didn't matter if she was real or conceived by someone. Her humanity stands out, wholly hers. Even in the context of the historical notes, when you're aware of the irony, that the fictional editor version of Alasdair disbelieved her—still, it is her voice, choices, and convictions that awaken you and leave you awestruck.

Poor Things, Alasdair Gray's sixth novel was published in 1992. It won the Whitbread Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize the same year.