Kevin MacNeil’s A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde has been slathered all over Scottish newspapers and magazines for the last month, and large visual displays in Edinburgh’s Waterstones have been very eye catching. MacNeil covers the familiar ground of Edinburgh and man’s essential duality – an ever popular subject. The novel appears to be MacNeil’s usual rendition of wisecracking bleakness, but it’s a more ambitious work than his first novel The Stornoway Way and despite naming his main inspiration in his title, he successfully avoids being derivative. This is no parody, no re-imagining, no up to date version of the original. MacNeil’s title is misleading, following the trend that Toby Young started of distorting and satirising self-help book titles. Although the novel is funny in MacNeil’s typically light handed way, it’s also dreamy, introspective and distorted, broaching new territory.
The plot begins deceptively unassumingly: Robert Lewis crashes his bike on his way to a play rehearsal of Jekyll and Hyde and gains a head injury. But then he starts to lose his already tenuous grip on his own identity. His life starts to fall apart, he starts to change. Who is he? Jekyll or Hyde? But MacNeil is far more sophisticated than that; our perceptions are continually altered and closer reading leaves us with a very ambiguous feeling.
A strange case, indeed. Part love letter to Scotland’s capital, part homage to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, on first reading, the novel falls a little flat, its twist initially appearing like a disappointing cliché that a writer of MacNeil’s talent should be above. The discordant ending, however, forces the reader to consider the idea of contrivance. The protagonist is an actor after all, and spends the first part of the novel rather gleefully boasting about how easily tricking his audience comes to him. We think we are his confidants, but we are deceived.
If Stevenson’s novella revolves around man’s psychological duality, exploring man’s darker side, then MacNeil’s novel spirals around narrative’s duality, the two different sides of a story. At the centre of this duality lies duplicity, something achieved to unsettling effect. At times Robert seems like the plucky underdog, victimised by his unsympathetic colleagues and cruelly rejected by the girl he’s smitten with; at other times the reactions of the people around him betray him as a self-absorbed egomaniac.
“I’m in two minds”, begins the novel and this is how, on finishing it, I still feel about it. I can’t decide whether the jealous rivalry between Robert Lewis and his understudy who is set for stardom is contrived or in fact the driving force behind the action. Is Robert being manipulated or paranoid? Does it even matter? The story’s fabric is continually torn apart and stitched back together by the reader as all the characters are seen in different lights.
The novel’s cover features two masks in black and red, of comedy and tragedy over a white background; I keep thinking about the white background that the masks lie on. Is there any objectivity in this novel, or are objectivity and truth just a blank background, a canvas for people like Robert Lewis to colour with their own perspectives? Robert even paraphrases Picasso: “dreams are like art…lies that tell a greater truth”. But what greater truth is MacNeil trying to reveal for us? The self-destructive Scot is a Kailyard cliché; but is the novelist pandering to type, or lampooning it?
For all its fragmentation, its jaggedy, spiky wit, MacNeil has created a fluid read; a work prompting questions about identity, leaving you feeling dizzy but seeing stars.