The unrivalled transcendence of Willem J. Gyle chronicles the final year of its namesake’s life. Willem is a giant of a man who suffers from learning difficulties. He is a labourer who lives with his mother in Edinburgh, relying on her for stability. He is laid off at the novel’s opening in 2009, following the 2007/8 financial crisis. Soon after his dismissal his mother dies from a seizure and he is evicted from their flat in Leith.
Not knowing where to turn or what to do, Willem sleeps rough for several days. Under the pressures of recent days he has an altercation with the police. He knocks one out by accident and flees. He lives on the streets for six months, using his meagre savings, begging and stealing to survive. During this time he learns the disdain, both conscious and unconscious, with which the rest of the world views homeless people. He is stripped of his pride and his rights as a man. He begins his ‘transcendence’ as his anger at the world grows; he finds solace and liberty in violence.
As autumn begins he is attacked whilst sleeping in a supermarket car park. He kills one of his assailants. The police are called and he flees once more. He is taken in by a community of homeless men and women who sleep under a bridge outside the main city. He lives with them for a week before it transpires that the old man who brought him there is a pimp interested in selling Willem. The old man steals the last of Willem’s money and tells him that he can have it back when he sets to work.
Willem attacks the pimp and his mistress. He takes all of their money and kills them, snapping their necks and throwing them from the bridge as the rest of the camp watches. He distributes the money amongst the rest of the camp and flees to the highlands, stealing the pimp’s moped.
Eventually he runs out of petrol and starts to cut across country, starving and exhausted. He walks for days into the mountains, determining to seek complete isolation from the world. He finds peace in exertion; he finds meaning in the mountains’ vast silence. Eventually, however, he collapses with exhaustion. A farmer finds him, loads him into his truck and takes him home. He calls a doctor who revives Willem and says that he has hypothermia; he will take a few weeks to recover.
The farmer and his wife offer to house him while he gets better. Willem slowly regains his strength, and when he is fit again they agree to continue housing and feeding him in exchange for his labour on the farm.
On the first day of advent a news broadcast goes on air naming him as a wanted murderer. The farmer and his wife call him a monster and he flees, attacking them and stealing the farmer’s truck. He determines once more to make his way into the mountains, seeking solitude and meaning away from society.
He crashes the van when it is runs low on fuel. He sets fire to it and once more cuts across country on foot. Half-starved and exhausted, with the police closing in on him, Willem searches for peace and perfection in death. After several days or weeks- in his weakened state he is unsure of the passage of time- he drowns himself in a loch.