Who has not felt from time to time - if not all the time - that things have reached an impasse? So many nations seem trapped in futile cycles of repression and revolution. The powerless are exploited while the supposedly powerful ''dare not devise good for man's estate/ And yet they know not that they do not dare,'' as Shelley aptly observed in 1818. In our own century, it also seems sometimes as if our species has scaled dizzying technological heights from which we cannot safely descend.
Such are among the preoccupations of Scottish writer Alasdair Gray, whose first novel, ''Lanark,'' was hailed by Anthony Burgess as the best book of 1981 and whose stories and second novel are being published this month. Gray's extravagant mythmaking goes against the mainstream of current British fiction, which (with the possible exceptions of writers like Burgess and Iris Murdoch) concentrates on social realism, whether depicting the ''kitchen sink'' drama of working-class life or the drawing rooms and bedrooms of the upper and middle classes.
A native of a grimly realistic city, Glasgow, Gray eschews the documentary slice of life and aspires, in Milton's words, to ''something like prophetic strain.'' Some critics have compared him to Rabelais, Blake, and Joyce (D. H. Lawrence could be added to the list, if he is not already on it). Yet such comparisons can be misleading: It is scarcely possible at this point to tell whether or not Gray belongs in such exalted company. But comparisons can convey some idea of the general flavor of his writing, which is self-consciously eccentric, self-mocking, satiric, and allegorical - mythopoeic in mode, yet strikingly direct and colloquial in style.
Why does it seem that things have reached an impasse? Gray, like Jeremiah, has an answer to this question. As the despairing narrator of ''1982 Janine'' observes in a moment of bitterly luminous self-knowledge, ''The human mind after childhood is the most super-dense rigid substance in God's universe, we will kill, we will die rather than change it.'' Hope and despair of changing the human mind are contrapuntal themes in Gray's work, desperation providing its moments of dark comedy, hope its flashes of redemp-tive tears. (''Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps,'' as Blake put it.)
''Unlikely Stories, Mostly,'' embellished with the author's drawings (more like Roy Lichtenstein's than Blake's), includes Gray's myth of the Axletree (which has its roots in the Tower of Babel) and his versions of the stories of Genesis and Prometheus.
Gray's ''Prometheus'' features a French writer named Pollard who wants to write the true, lost conclusion to Aeschylus's ''Prometheus Bound.'' In Gray/Pollard's version, the tyrannical Olympian sky-god who has chained Prometheus to a rock has reached a point where he says he would like to release his old ally, but is afraid that someone who has suffered so great a wrong will take his revenge as soon as he is free. Unable to find a way past this deadlock, Pollard appeals to a young woman he's met at a cafe to provide what seems to be the missing element: a feminine perspective on a masculine power struggle. (One is reminded of the similar role Shelley's female Asia plays in his ''Prometheus Unbound.'') Pollard's woman declines: She has feminist problems of her own to work out.
As the Titan who stole fire from heaven, Prometheus is often considered the father of technology. Gray's main symbol of technology, however, is taken from the Bible: the Tower of Babel.
Perhaps Gray's most memorable elaboration of the Tower of Babel is his tale of the ''axletree.'' (''Do not call it a tower!'' the emperor warns. ''Towers are notorious for falling down.'') As Gray ingeniously develops this symbol, it comes to represent not only technology but any aspect of civilization that justifies its growth at the expense of human life. The emperor dreams up the axletree as an endless project to give purpose to his faltering empire. But the project becomes an end in itself: a time comes when
... the axletree is full of comfortable, well-meaning people who expect to rise to a higher position before they die and who mean to pass on their advantages to their children. They can only do this in a structure which keeps getting larger. They cannot see they are dealing out crime, famine and war to the earth below....
And of course, there are further rationalizations, summarized and exposed with icy irony:
Some historians suggested that great wars were the axletree's way of shedding obsolete structures and superfluous populations, and described the great work as a growing creature with its own intelligence. Others said that a growth which shed old branches by burning off its healthiest leaves and fruit did not show intelligence of a high kind.
Finally, the president of the largest axletree construction company, having realized the danger to the earth, tries to stop his technicians from breaking through the sky (which, contrary to scientific opinion, is discovered to exist after all!). Gray's unique blend of humor and horror, playfulness and high seriousness, reaches a climax in these last-ditch exchanges. ''Everyone on earth begs you to stop,'' says the president. ''Nobody supports you except shareholders, a corrupted trade union, the army, and mad experimenters without respect for human life.'' Control room's reply: ''Support sufficient. The spirit of man is too great to be confined by a physical boundary.'' The diction and syntax parody modern computer-talk; the message is timeless.
Gray's novel ''1982 Janine'' deals with many of the same themes as his stories, although its form is stream-of-consciousness narrative rather than allegory. It takes place in a Glasgow hotel room, where Jock MacLeish, a traveling installer of security systems, has settled in for the night with a good supply of whiskey and an imaginary cast of characters for his sexual fantasizings. Anticipating the reader's possible objections to his lubricious fantasies, Jock points out that he leads an exemplary, quite abstemious sort of real life: ''Surely, inside the pri-vacy of this body and the secrecy of this skull I have earned the right to enjoy any woman I want....''
What begins as a flight into pornographic fantasy, however, will end, before morning, in a return to reality and renewed hope. Jock's fantasies, which seem to promise infinite freedom, are revealed, in time, to be repetitive, overdetermined structures that screen out the past, the future, politics, family , friendship, love, common sense, and even God (whose voice gradually breaks through as the night wears on). The fantasies that seem to place Jock in positions of power and control are deftly shown to be masks for his growing realization that in his actual life, he is the one who is dominated and controlled: ''I am the instrument of a firm which installs instruments....''
There can be little doubt that Gray, even as he exposes pornography as a symptom of unhappiness, is nonetheless writing pornography (or pornographic passages). Some readers do not find this objectionable in any case. Others may find it so, no matter what the circumstances. The large middle-of-the-road group of readers who try to judge each case by its own merits will, I suspect, find Gray's poignant, rueful, frequently hilarious treatment of the subject utterly disarming.
The root meaning of ''pornography'' is writing about prostitutes. Jock's ironic discovery is that he, not the fantasized ''Janine,'' has been the real prostitute all along. He has sold himself to his employers, a company called ''National Security,'' as he finally recognizes in an outburst that is positively Lawrentian in the strength of its righteous indignation:
Yes, intelligences go whoring after money more than bodies do, because we are not taught that it is whoredom to sell a small vital bit of our intelligence to people we don't like and who don't like us.
From this, Jock deduces, come gas chambers and napalm - technical know-how in the service of destruction.
But perhaps Gray's most brilliant touch is to allow us to perceive Jock's fantasies as anti-mnemonic devices that enable him to forget his past, his family, and the ideals and happiness of his youth, all of which he has betrayed. Jock's true story, which he tries to - but finally cannot - forget, gradually wins out over his lurid fantasies. The truth about what he has done is, as he puts it, ''very ordinary and very terrible.'' He betrayed a woman he loved for a slightly more ''glamorous'' one he did not love. He abandoned his brave dream of improving some small part of the world for the lethal security of his job and a cheaply cynical attitude toward politics. His obsessive fantasies may not be evil, but they are a symptom of his sorry predicament: ''Nothing new will grow in a mind containing ... Janine,'' he muses. With all the world before him to choose, why has he repeatedly chosen to imagine ''Janine''?
But the human mind, that ''superdense rigid substance,'' can change, and in Gray's imaginative vision, every change, no matter how small, is significant. Jock's fantasy- and memory-filled night proves cathartic, and something new does take root in his mind, opening a space for hope and renewal. What Gray has achieved in this very moving novel surpasses the grimly elegant ironies of his stories: He has made Jock's miraculous change as convincing as his former despair.