Welcome to another installment of my
haphazard carefully planned guide to preparing to live in Scotland. I recently decided to use my daily 30 minute lunch break to check out a television show that’s been on my list since Netflix suggested that it could fill the void that opened in my life when I finished watching Spaced last spring. That show is called The Book Group, and it’s set in Glasgow.
The show revolves around Claire Pettengill’s efforts to carve out a life for herself in Scotland, where she’s overstaying her visa and attempting unsuccessfully to write a book. Claire is socially awkward, rude, and incredibly insensitive. To round out these pleasant traits, she’s also pretty bossy. It’s Claire who kicks off the show’s action by posting an ad for a book group she’s hosting – not a club, she later distinguishes, because clubs are inherently exclusive – but a group without a leader. The first book is Kerouac’s On the Road, which Claire names the great American novel only to become frustrated when her non-American companions come to diverse conclusions about the book’s quality and the narrator’s purpose.
The show relies on an ensemble of actors, who carried the various plot lines for fourteen episodes before the show was canceled. There’s Kenny, goodnatured and wheelchair-bound, who writes a book and rises to success throughout the course of the show. There’s Rab, a closeted bisexual who is obsessed with football. There’s Janice, the stifled housewife who dishes about her affairs to her priest and eventually transforms herself into a “girl reporter.” There’s Fist and Dirka, wealthy Scandinavian friends whose boredom with their husbands drives them to compete for Kenny’s affection. And finally, there’s Barney, who dies of a heroin overdose only to be replaced by his brother (played by the same actor), an indecisive conceptual artist named Lachlan.
The plot meanders as the characters attempt to form bonds that are broken as quickly as they are created. After the first few episodes, the books recede from the center of each episode’s plot. Although some reviewers expressed disappointment over this, I actually didn’t think the frame was too important.
To me, the show is about connection — who wants it, who has it, and how it can be formed. In each episode, the dynamics between the characters shift distinctly. Part of this has to do with the rules of the book group — each character has a turn picking a book and hosting the group, and the book selection and trip into the character’s home reveals new information about them.
But ultimately, connection eludes the characters. Misunderstandings erode their patience with one another. Characters retreat deeper into their fantasies. Rather than bringing the characters closer together, the books drive the characters apart as they veil attacks on one another behind the metaphors harvested from the texts. It’s a postmodern vision of simultaneous experiences of loneliness and intimacy; the decisive narratives are contained to books that have already been written, rendering the characters’ search for resolution futile.
So, what does this have to do with studying abroad at St. Andrews?
First of all, the characters speak in a variety of accents. Some sound English, some sound Scottish, some are refined and others clip the ends of words. I found it helpful to listen to characters like Rab and Kenny, whose pronunciations of English words differ from the American ones I’m used to. There are a few slang phrases that seem more normal to me now. For example, Kenny invites Fist and Dirka to “get pissed” at a local pub. Although the night does end in frustration and annoyance (the American definition of “pissed”), the slang obviously means that they get drunk together. These things are pretty basic.
But in a broader sense, Claire’s move to Scotland mirrors my own in interesting ways. She’s trying to become a writer. She’s starting over in a new place.
However, in spite of these overarching similarities, Claire and I are quite different. Claire doesn’t seem to be particularly open to soaking in her surroundings. In one episode, she repeatedly makes bizarre comments about not understanding why her Scottish guests drink so much tea. What does it matter, Claire? Who cares if they drink tea? Why not just have a cup of tea and stop criticizing everything you possibly can? I wanted to ask her.
Significantly, Claire’s long fantasy sequence, which spans the entire second season, is set in a desert that might be in the Middle East but might be elsewhere — anywhere but drizzly Scotland. Claire came to Glasgow to escape her life in Ohio, but as soon as she begins to settle in with a new boyfriend and a consistent book group, she begins to dream of someplace new. Claire is running from her insecurities and limitations, but they’ll follow her wherever she goes, the only constant companions in a landscape defined by broken connections.
Claire is a character who has yet to hit upon her purpose. Her aimless energy is channeled into symptoms of her frustration. There’s an emptiness in Claire’s life, something she’s chasing. Until she finds that one fulfilling element, none of her relationships or books can satisfy her. She’s stubborn and her frequent impatience puts up walls between her and the other characters.
I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed The Book Group, but I don’t think it was written to make the viewer comfortable. The show didn’t tap me into the pulse of Glasgow as I had hoped, but rather into the pulse of finding a niche — not just in a new city, but in life more generally. That’s a long, uncomfortable, meandering process, for sure, and one that isn’t contained in the neat peaks of a standard plot arc.
I tend to equate experience with value. How much have you seen, where have you been, what have you done — these seem to be the ways to accumulate authority. But while watching The Book Group, I realized that if this gathering is done without context, it’s rendered useless. No matter where you are or what you do, it’s not knowing someone or doing something that pushes you closer to some greater awareness. Just being there is not enough. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Glasgow or Omaha — people are people and your same old problems will stick to you like a shadow.
There’s a next step that makes these experiences useful, transforming them from simple events into moments of observation and reflection. The notion of insight and how to gain it is elusive to say the least. Maybe it’s a vulnerability or an openness, a willingness to let events move you and shape you. Maybe someday I’ll find out, from a book or a person or from myself. Maybe.