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BOOK REVIEW : SOMETHING LEATHER<i> by Alasdair Gray</i> Random House $19, 257 pages : Novel Lives Up to Its Provocative Title

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s a little frightening that Scottish novelist Alasdair Gray has felt the need to justify his newest novel twice within its own covers.

In the final chapter--"Critic-Fuel: An Epilogue"--he explains how he came to write fiction from a woman’s point of view; in a postscript to the U.S. edition, he writes that the majority of reviewers denounced “Something Leather” when it was published in England last year, and regrets not titling the book, less provocatively, “Glaswegians.” For “publicity reasons,” however, Gray says “the book will keep its present bad name until it is forgotten.”

Gray’s sensitivity is understandable. “Something Leather” is bracketed by scenes of lesbianism, a perfectly acceptable topic for a work of literature--until the implied sexual sadism of the first chapter becomes full-fledged in the penultimate.

And that’s not even the most controversial aspect of the book; the intelligent, well-respected June, who half-consciously initiates the painful, erotic game-playing through the purchase of a leather skirt, is strangely rewarded by the abuse. To be sure, the following day she is sore, damaged and robbed of dignity, but also finds herself able, now, to experience desire, to break out of self-imposed loneliness. She becomes, as the chapter title indicates, a “New June.”

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Gray is pursuing an interesting theme--how unwanted experience can give birth to broader understanding, how interference by others can force change, even growth. But on that level, “Something Leather” is only partially successful, mostly because June doesn’t seem particularly bad off to begin with.

She suffers from little more than disengaged ennui; moreover, her sexual awakening strains credulity, so immediate and life-changing it feels artificial.

June’s rapists--the word fits--are filled with genuine affection for her and apologize for their actions, but it’s difficult to believe June would be prepared to take up with them again just hours after their assault.

The real trouble with “Something Leather,” however, is “American Psycho"--the fact that any novel published in the wake of that infamous work and which likewise contains graphic descriptions of violence against women can’t be taken on its own terms.

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The Atlantic recently killed a commissioned review of Paul West’s “The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper” largely because, as an editor of the magazine told the New York Times earlier this month, “we cannot . . . publish something that asks us to admire the literary merit of a book about chopping women up.”

Can anyone doubt that Bret Easton Ellis’ novel has changed what’s considered acceptable in literature--that certain subjects simply can’t be explored today? Gray knew full well he was treading on perilous ground in “Something Leather,” hence his epilogue and postscript, but he’s right to say that the book is less indebted to Joyce’s “Dubliners” than Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio.”

In the final analysis, Gray’s novel is more about “ordinary social kinkiness,” as the author puts it, than sexuality of any kind. The central figure of “Something Leather,” unexpectedly, isn’t June but Harry, a completely asexual woman until roped into paying for, and participating in, June’s sexual exploitation. We follow her life story closely, from her abused childhood, to her ostracism at school, to her success as an environmental artist able to redeem her childhood by re-creating its better moments on a grand scale.

Gray, in fact, presents rafts of characters who add little to the plot but do illustrate the myriad ways in which relationships between men and women of every class go sour.

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These characters are always engagingly drawn, and Gray shows no more difficulty imagining from a woman’s perspective than he does from a man’s.

Indeed, the most fully realized world, Harry’s boarding school, seems a wonderfully real place (though few can be run by headmistresses as empathetic and resourceful as Ethel).

Gray is more interested in telling tales than in tracing the development of his characters--Harry is an exception--and that’s one reason, no doubt, he felt compelled to describe the genesis of “Something Leather” in the final chapter.

It wasn’t a good decision; Gray’s explanations highlight the novel’s weaknesses, primarily the loose link between asexuality and anomie. Harry and June do make contact in the end without need of procurers, but it’s not clear why physical sex should be their point of connection.

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That’s not a barrier to the enjoyment of “Something Leather,” however, and whatever one thinks of Gray’s choice of subject matter, he remains a fine stylist and a sharp observer of modern life.

Next: Judith Freeman reviews “Never Die” by Barry Hannah (Houghton Mifflin).


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