Something Chronic is a first novel by Dundee-born writer, historian, gay-activist and journalist Bob Cant. Set in Dundee and its surrounding area in the 1990s, this is a generous, quirky and humorous narrative that brings together local and global voices. It bridges the past and the present successfully and coaxes the reader not to dismiss this post-industrial city.
By widening the focus beyond local culture, Cant’s acute social observation encourages the reader to reflect on a number of universal themes. Bold and surprising in its eclecticism, this book taps into various modern genres in order to explore serious issues sympathetically and warmly. Cant’s narrative toys with the boundaries between reality and fiction, passing through moments of magical realism that are inspired by the native haunts of his youth.
Something Chronic follows the journey of Dundonian Euan Saddler as he emerges from the depths of a twenty-year-long sleeping sickness that struck him at the moment he cast his vote at the first Scottish referendum on devolution in 1979, aged 19. On the eve of the millennium, Euan is looked after in residential care in BroughtyFerry as he is progressively recovers from his sickness/coma. He encounters a number of people during his convalescence and they, one by one, help him to readjust to a changed society, with different social and political realities.
Euan discovers that he is able to conjure up ghosts and he soon draws out personal testimonies of the deceased. The ghosts themselves provide perspectives on the complexity of recent history and their stories shed light on local and international events. These encounters gradually stimulate Euan’s own search for a revised sense of cultural placement.
Euan gradually awakens to the cultural and political changes that have taken place around him while he was sleeping. With the help of his carer and psychologist Haris, a Serbian from Sarajevo, Euan gradually connects with a more culturally and politically diverse community than the one he knew. Concurrently with this literal awakening is a new found awareness of his sexual identity, which does not, of course, sit comfortably with his background.
Something Chronic is a commentary on the quest for personal identity and also provides an opportunity to reflect on the nature of national identity. Old values are embodied in the Angus farming community in which he was raised. This past culture and set of values contrast starkly with those of of his Indian friend and journalist Lakshmi and also with those of Dolly, who is a local community activist from the fringes of Dundee’s social housing developments.
In contrast to these complex lives, the local radio station which also has a substantial presence in the story, gives in to conservative, narrow-minded quips with racist overtones. Far from reflecting today’s complex society, its parochial voice is incongruous and out of step.
Cant’s novel is steeped in local and historical lore. It manages through gentle humour, imagination and bold creativity to sustain many complex strands. Its insistence on the sympathetic discussion of diversity is a fundamental prerequisite for an inclusive and broad-minded exploration of the issues that underpin our core values. These should feed into all the political conversations of our age. Perhaps and inevitably for a book that draws inspiration from the social character of Dundee, there is much pleasure to be derived in the myriad one-liners typical of the Scottish East Coast. Cant not only taps into nuggets of dry humour, repartee and self-derision, but it also portrays Dundee as a place where many of the burning political questions of our times are being played out.