Douglas Stuart’s Freudian Melodramas – The Atlantic

For the poor, undereducated, underemployed characters of Douglas Stuart’s novels, late-20th-century Glasgow is a bleak world that is getting bleaker all the time. Each of his two novels thus far focuses on the dynamics of a single family living in a Glasgow devastated by the collapse privatization schemes thatd Scottish industry under Margaret Thatcher. Absent fathers, plentiful drink, and no work produce a fictional world that is devoid of opportunity or advancement but full of carefully considered, minute, and dismal detail.

Shuggie Bain and Young Mungo, Stuart’s most recent novel, offer stories with similar trajectories. In both, mothers with alcohol addiction—after disappointments, money woes, romantic failures, and violence—retreat to the bottle and turn to their children for comfort, demanding affection and care. In both cases, as the families’ older children age, they begin to see their mother’s periodic entreaties for what they are: lies meant to paper over both their neglect and their own losses. But Shuggie and Mungo are different from their elder siblings; when their mothers reach out to them in intoxicated longing, they reach back. Curled around their mothers’ drunken forms, they are small, human hymns to the false rhetoric of some types of maternal love. Agnes and Maureen don’t love their children unreservedly, though they expect unreserved love from them. Why do Shuggie and Mungo give it to them? Stuart seems to suggest that some of the boys’ common characteristics—they are both the youngest child of three; they are both boys; they are both gay—have something to do with it.

Stuart, like many novelists working in the mode of melodrama, favors plots that depend on family trauma (the only good mother is a dead one; all troubled adults come from a broken home). But his project is complicated by the strangely persistent remnants of an outdated cultural Freudianism that suggests a warped, almost erotic intensity in the relationship between mothers and their gay sons—remnants that appear, whether intentionally or not, in Stuart’s focus on the relationship between these characters. (For Freud, maternal overinvestment produced gay men; boys become gay when they transfer their erotic attachment to their mother back onto themselves, suggesting that the object of a gay man’s love is simply an avatar for self-obsession.)

It’s unclear whether Stuart is purposefully creating these Freudian dynamics, though his own upbringing as the child seems of a mother with alcohol addiction to hold up a hazy mirror to these plots. At any rate, it’s striking how his characters or narrators comment on quasi-amorous mother-son relationships. In Shuggie, Stuart notes that Shuggie and his mother look like “an unhappy married couple” as they get dressed for a party; in Mungo, Mungo and his mother move like “young lovers” when he helps her across the street. And early in Shuggie Bain, Stuart presents a blazing, Oedipal scene in which Agnes attempts to draw Shuggie to her in a suicidal embrace on her bed as she burns down her bedroom. There’s a troubling logic to these relationships—which is confusing in its intent.

Shuggie Bain, which won the Booker Prize in 2020, tells the story of Shuggie, a sensitive, intelligent boy whose beautiful, imperious lush of a mother unsettled his family’s already unsettled life. That novel follows the twinned stories of the boy, who is slowly, benightedly, coming to terms with his gayness, and Agnes, his alcoholic, glamorous, striving mother. Shuggie Bain is a kind of bildungsroman: Over the course of the novel, Shuggie comes to better understand himself and his sexuality, while Agnes serves as her generation’s dark warning to her son. She was a young Glaswegian who had hoped for better things, but her promise sours on strong drink and violent romance.

The novel’s denouement comes with a horrifying turn. One night, Shuggie arrives home and finds Agnes passed out, drunk, looking “like a melted candle.” Shuggie tries to clean her up a little, then sits and watches as she snores. But then her breathing changes: She retches, vomit spilling out of her mouth. She shakes, choking on the bile. “He almost did something then, almost used his fingers to help, but then her breath hissed away slowly; it just faded, like it was walking away and leaving her,” Stuart writes.

Does Shuggie kill his mother? Kind of; by which I mean yes. Drink has soaked her, but his inaction is, in the desperate world he lives in, the same as action. Shuggie feels sorry for not trying harder to save her, but he also sees how freeing her death is for him. In this way, Stuart ends the novel with another stark, Freudian vignette. Why does Shuggie watch as Agnes Bain dies? Because, within the logic of Stuart’s fictional world, in order to escape the constraints of his childhood and live his own life, the child must (apparently) kill his mother.

Stuart catalogs, with a lapidary eye, the effects of family trauma and wide-scale social and economic depression on his young protagonists. Though it follows a different character from a different family, Young Mungo almost picks up where Shuggie leaves off: Mungo is a little older than Shuggie, and the Glasgow that Stuart depicts is in the early 1990s, not the mid-1980s—even more impoverished, even less scaffolded by the post–World War II safety net. The novel unfolds along two story lines. In the first, we watch Mungo fall tentatively in love with a young Catholic boy who lives in the building behind his flat. The novel’s other trajectory follows Mungo as he goes on a shambolic fishing trip with two AA friends of his mother, Mo-Maw, an adventure that his mother hopes will shake Mungo’s effeminacy. But unbeknownst to Mo-Maw (or is it?), the two people with whom she has agreed to send her son away are violent men, pedophiles, both recently released from prison. The unraveling of this plotline is harrowing. But the optimism of the romantic plot at the core of Mungo’s story pushes back on this seedy, violent one, in part because, like Shuggie, Mungo eventually disentangles himself from his overbearing mother, staring “right through her” as she tries to reestablish her centrality in his life.

Young Mungo replicates the bildungsroman format of Shuggie Bain, where the growing up equals a growing away from the mother figure—but before Mungo can do so, Mo-Maw’s draw on him is, for much of the novel, as powerful as Agnes’s is on Shuggie. In one scene, Mungo speaks with his sister, Jodie, who has been admitted to the University of Glasgow. Mungo demurs as Jodie suggests he work hard at school so that he, too, can leave: “’You’re smarter than you think. And perfectly capable.’ She squeezed her brother. ‘Hey? Is this about Mo-Maw?’ Mungo didn’t answer her.” But the truth is clear even without a response:

Everything about this boy was about his mother. He lived for her in a way that she had never lived for him. It was as though Mo-Maw was a puppeteer, and she had the tangled, knotted strings of him in her hands. She animated every gesture he made: the timid smile, the thrumming nerves, the anxious biting, the worry, the pleasing, the way he made himself smaller in any room he was in, the watchful way he stood on the edge before committing, and the kindness, the big, big love.

The end of Young Mungo mirrors the ending of Shuggie Bain, with a less pessimistic resolution. If, in Shuggie, we see Agnes’s death as a release for Shuggie, we also see what it releases him into: a scraped-together existence of menial jobs and tentative forays into sex work. There is hope at the end of Shuggie Bainbut it’s muted and limited. Young Mungo Works slightly differently: It doesn’t dispatch with Mo-Maw, but when Mungo returns from fishing, having killed Mo-Maw’s friends, who raped him on the trip, he no longer sees her as someone he can rely on. Mungo’s ending, like Shuggie’s, is a rejection of maternal care. The future Stuart opens to Shuggie and Mungo is not secure, but it is different from the future Agnes and Mo-Maw would have chosen for their boys: a future in which they would always be caring for their broken-down mother, one in which they failed to escape from the Oedipal confines of this relationship.

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