THE lighting in Accident & Emergency is never less than brutal in its after-midnight reveal of stricken humanity. By way of introduction, Alan Warner catches Douglas Cunningham in its glare. For the off-the-rails young Scot in London, A & E waiting rooms meet his need for overnight refuge. They are places where he can sink into the anonymity of collective distress, at least temporarily. At Acton A & E, ‘There were no people with axes or knives embedded in blood-matted scalps. Several supplicants leaned into the palms of their hands with despair, as if this would give them priority’. Cunningham could hardly find anywhere less restful – or offering less peace for the ‘wicked’. Booted out of university, shamed and homeless, at the tender age of twenty-one he has blown his parents’ hopes by voiding his ticket into the middle classes. The potential upside is that failure cuts him loose from others’ expectations, free to make himself up as he goes along. So what will he do with this freedom, apart from keeping faith with his tandem addictions, literature and beer?
Cunningham’s efforts to avoid the attention of the A & E receptionist involve staring at his feet and staving off the temptation to pull out a book – Ultima Thule, the first of many novels referenced in Their Lips Talk Of Mischief. For readers not already familiar with them, the flourish of book titles might seem inconsequential, and it might put off those who have an allergy to fiction that dwells on the writing process, so much of which now emanates from factories of further education. But don’t crack open the pack of anti-histamine just yet: Warner is doing something more interesting than writerly navel-gazing, and readers who allow themselves to be coaxed into his literary honey trap will be rewarded by far more than a ‘recommended’ list.
These book titles contour a hinterland of reading and thinking around the existential, religious and moral themes that supply the bass notes of Their Lips Talk Of Mischief. Each invites investigation. Take the book that’s in Cunningham’s jacket pocket when we first meet him. Exile is a significant seasoning in Australian author Ethel Richardson’s portrait of the moral and physical collapse of Richard Mahony, as it is in Their Lips Talk Of Mischief. In her personal memoir, Richardson wrote: ‘How I do hate the ordinary sleek biography! I’d have every wart & pimple emphasised, every tricky trait or petty meanness brought out. The great writers are great enough to bear it’. They’re sentiments evidently shared by Warner’s narrator. Another example is Cunningham’s choice of best first line: ‘“Take my camel, dear,” said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.’ This comes from Rose Macaulay’s The Towers Of Trebizond, in which, according to the original jacket blurb, the pull of hereditary Anglicanism on the central character causes ‘nostalgic and fitful aspirations… perpetually at odds with stronger forces that drag victoriously in quite other directions, causing unresolvable tension.’ Again a significant connection, both with the sentimental Catholicism of Llewellyn Smith and the desire for a cut of salvation that develops in Cunningham – and in both men, unresolvabe tensions.
Just as Warner uses book-mentions as embedded pointers to his subtext, he also scatters embedded visual pointers. The first of these happens as Cunningham claps eyes on Llewellyn, in casual pose, leaning against the wall outside Acton A & E: Llewellyn tosses a cigarette to the ground ‘like a dart so that it burst on the tarmac in orange sparks’. Well, yes: man is indeed born to trouble as the sparks fly upward. Warner uses a similar device in the brilliant scene that follows, where Llewellyn demands to be seen by a doctor, then opens his overcoat like a flasher in order to wind up the power-mad receptionist. Cunningham observes, ‘He wore no shirt; his pale torso was utterly hairless, slightly muscled – like that of a trained swimmer – but straight down, from six inches beneath his neck to just above his navel, was bright blood, coagulated around the black lips of a huge wound’. Everyone thinks he’s been stabbed and Llewellyn moves straight to the head of the queue.
Warner choreographs this sequence with Chaplinesque precision, and has Llewellyn take his exit for treatment with aplomb and a wink, leaving Cunningham in a waiting room ‘thrumming with ignited chatter’. Pure comedy? It certainly works as that; but the novel develops in such a way as to encourage a second look at this scene, and the impression is that Warner is ever so elegantly (and cunningly) using the comedy of the situation to efface an embedded visual reference to the stigmata that are considered marks of sainthood in the Catholic Church. Now, what sort of person would associate the stigmata of sainthood with Llewellyn, and why? Seeding the novel with unspoken questions such as these, Warner contributes a sense of what ‘happens’ after the tale completes its six-month trajectory.
London, 1984, provides the broader setting. In real life, Orwell’s iconic year saw the Thatcher government poised like a praying mantis over the National Union of Miners. The victory of selfish ‘no such thing as society’ Thatcherism and the trumpeted decay of socialist ideals form an unobtrusive but relevant backdrop. As Llewellyn puts it in his jaunty, chauvinistic way: ‘Acquiring beer. Acquiring women. They do say it’s an acquisitive society’. Or, in more serious vein: ‘Scargill’s right. Ten years, there’ll be no mining left in Britain. The strike’s bigger than fucking coal. This is the free market and MI5 versus human beings, and the market will win, mark my words.’
Guilt ‘darker than the swoon of sin’ – as James Joyce describes his Young Artist’s first sexual encounter – lies at the heart of Their Lips Talk of Mischief. The title, from Proverbs – ‘For their heart studieth destruction, and their lips talk of mischief’ – alerts us to the self-loathing and remorse that underlies a narrative that is nevertheless studded with hilarious scenes. Warner’s word-play and sense of the absurd provide plenty surface pizazz, but it is submerged guilt that gives momentum and shape to this novel, in which not just one, but two would-be artists are provided with generous servings of sin.
For Cunningham and Llewellyn, life’s more about downing pints and losing the plot, but they instantly acknowledge in each other the nascent writer – or at least, the ambition to become a writer – and nothing less than a great one. Unfortunately for them, reading great work of itself does not turn anyone into a great writer, however intensely they have entered into the experience or embellish themselves with literature identity buttons as floridly as any Pearly King, supping a late-night pint or three in Llewellyn’s local, ‘The Five or Six Bells’. Months later, Cunningham does actually come up with a piece of writing, which Llewellyn takes care to damn with faint praise: ‘Touch of pompous diction, weird use of commas. I like the story. A sort of greasy café, egg and chips of Huysmans and Borges. You have that almost in your pocket. You need to be sure that you have a piece of writing, not a piece of publishing’. The only publisher to take an interest in their work is the ghastly Toby Hanson. Sporting ‘a diarrhoea-coloured cashmere overcoat’, all he wants is to exploit their caption-writing skills, for a flat fee.
Out of the blue, Llewellyn offers Cunningham a billet back at his ‘palace of sin’. Box room, camp bed, spare typewriter – there’s no saying no to that unholy trinity. Well matched in blokishness and bookishness, they wobble back to Almayer House bearing curry and cheap fizz to placate Llewellyn’s partner Aoife, ‘old ice knickers’. Llewellyn and Aiofe have issues, but also issue, the lovely baby Lily. They both feel trapped but they’re fast-tracking towards marriage. Predictably, legal sanction fails to make them any less disconsolate and confused.
In their run-down, high-rise flat, amid jaded furnishings and peeling wallpaper – ‘Look Back In Anger with digital watches’ – Cunningham’s whole being surges with ‘bizarre distress’ at the proximity of the ‘menacingly beautiful’ Aoife. It’s as if he’s ‘been waiting to deliver this woman a message which had been carried in my throat all of my life’. Yet when they are alone, a moment laden with all the fateful resonance a romantic heart might crave, his throat is dry, his words mundane.
Apart from sly darts of body language, communication between Cunningham and Aoife is far from eloquent and their conversations are on a very different register from the flights fired up between Cunningham and Llewellyn. Aoife comes over as so passive it could be a form of self-harm; she’s chronically self-effacing, likeable in a ‘what’s not to like’ sort of way, and ridiculously fond of emphasising, with infantile religiosity, that as a Catholic girl she must be careful to limit her sexual partners before marriage. In the throes of his solipsistic love-obsession, Cunningham hardly sees her at all. He watches, bemused, as she refreshes her lipstick at every given opportunity, but just like her, he’s putting on a face, although she’s the one who articulates just how insecure she, Llewellyn and Cunningham actually are.
Their Lips Talk Of Mischief is not framed as youth’s account of itself. Cunningham’s retrospective judgements on himself are punitive. He sees himself as a callow, self-centred, emotional vampire, wallowing in feelings of ardour in order to avoid confronting his personal truth. In a disclaimer, Warner insists that the characters are ‘of course’ fictional – anticipating the perception that this is an autobiographical novel. Certainly he was young and in London in 1984. He does go so far as to acknowledge that the books in Llewellyn’s bookcase were the ones he read in his early twenties, and that the madly funny wedding dinner – including legging it in his kilt from an Indian restaurant without paying – is based on something that really happened.
Alan Warner has been a passionate reader since childhood. He tells a lovely story of his dad sitting by his bed, whisky in hand, reading him Jaws right through the night; the wee boy’s appetite for a good story matched by the dad’s willingness to put story-telling before regulation bedtime dogma. His pleasure in words is contagious, as is his fascination with the potential transmutation of something read into something that becomes part of the DNA of the reader’s imagination, an awareness that is the guiding force of Their Lips Talk Of Mischief.
Their Lips Talk of Mischief
Faber, £14.99, ISBN 9780571311279, PP341