by S. B. Kelly

Outgrowing Oban

October 28, 2009 | by S. B. Kelly

REVIEWING A BOOK is a very different experience from simply reading one and then committing your thoughts to paper. For a start, there’s the press release: a more or less subtle attempt to suggest the kinds of adjectives the publisher would like to see reiterated in print. In this case, it opens with strident authority (“The man’s a genius – one of the most influential literary mould-breakers ever” – Time Out) and follows with a rash of alliteration – “provocative and profound… further proof of his prodigal gifts”. The proof copy itself carries laudations from the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday; as if to say that tabloid and broadsheet, left wing and right are for once as one in their enthusiasm. An ideal reviewer should be able to ignore all this. But were the book to arrive emblazoned only with the title and the author’s name, this ideal would still be unattainable. For better or for worse, a name is more than just a convenient method for shelf-organisation. It’s a brand. What does “Alan Warner” mean? What associations and expectations does it carry?

Warner is the author of four previous works – Morvern Callar (1995), These Demented Lands (1997), The Sopranos (1998) and The Man Who Walks (2002). His debut has not only been filmed by one of Scotland’s most acclaimed directors (Lynne Ramsay), but is the subject of a monograph (by Sophy Dale) and was put forward as one of the 100 Greatest Scottish Books Since Records Began. He is broadly bracketed with Irvine Welsh and Duncan McLean as one of Scotland’s erstwhile Young Turks: iconoclastic, tactically outrageous and unafraid of the explicit, be it linguistic, sexual or in terms of drug use.

All four novels display a heightened and skewed verisimilitude than edges into the surreal: Morvern has a “glittering” knee, Couris Jean has an epiphanic encounter with horses galloping in from the sea that strikes her dumb. The Aircrash Investigator has to hike across the island with a propeller bound to his back. The Sopranos’ school has a blasphemous parrot, and one of the girls attempts to have sex with a comatose fellow cancer-patient. The Nephew travels at one point in a canoe covered in Biblical inscriptions (and unfortunately containing a wasp’s byke as well), his Uncle’s house is a warren of papiermâché tunnels, abandoned troughs and pub furniture. All four novels involve journeys, but are centred on “The Port”, Warner’s transformation of Oban, and a personal mythology, built around repeated references – Morvern, for example, is mentioned in all four – evolves across the quartet.

Within this stylistic continuum, there is a degree of generic variation. Morvern Callar is a twisted version of a Bildungsroman, the novel of personal growth. These Demented Lands, his most intriguing work to date, is more hallucinatory, like William Burroughs abandoned in a West Coast bar. The Sopranos, conversely, is almost realism: dirty, dirty realism, but grounded nonetheless in the recognisable. The Man Who Walks might best be described as a “satura lanx”, the classical Roman satire – literally, an exaggerated, overstuffed hotch-potch. It is a parade of monstrosities and caricatures, with a set-piece grotesque dinner à la Trimalchio’s Feast.

Each of the novels has vivid images, memorable jokes and sinister, haunting moments. Gavin Wallace’s comparison to David Lynch is perspicacious, and almost inadvertently highlights the weakness of Warner’s oeuvre. Twin Peaks had its own macabre mythology, slapstick comic relief, and similarly excavated the ‘urban’ problems of a rural location. But, it had a plot. The murder of Laura Palmer provided impetus, development, unveiling and resolution; qualities conspicuous by their absence in Warner. Morvern Callar, for example, raises numerous potential plot lines: her boyfriend’s suicide and her disposal of the body, her substitution of her own name for his on the unpublished manuscript, the publication of the book, her Euro-pean clubbing trips: yet in each case, the actions are untethered from consequences. It is, in an odd way, the triumph of the ineffectual. Warner’s method could be termed the aesthetics of the craic: each story encourages another anecdote, each yarn provokes another tall tale. Tellingly, when Morvern meets her London publishers, she registers her disappointment saying, “they didnt tell stories they just discussed”.

Warner has vision, and he has a voice (the introduction of colloquialisms such as “offof”, the ribald Scots banter of the Sopranos, the Nephew’s frequent expletive “yacuntya” have been praised and critiqued in equal measure) – but he has lacked, so far, a convincing vehicle. These Demented Lands is perhaps strongest by virtue of the eerie tableaux it conjures without explaining; The Sopranos ends with an almost tacked-on, ironic deus ex machina; the double-bluff volte-face in The Man Who Walks – whereby the hunter is revealed as the true quarry – is phenomenally over-elaborate. As novels, they all resist the novelistic mechanics of narrative.

So, if a copy of The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven, but without the author’s name, landed on a desk, would a reviewer automatically recognise it as being by Alan Warner?

Superficially, the answer has to be no. A few moments (the description of McDonalds stripping the world of language, as in The Sopranos, and the maxim, “Tourism is the Flower which Grows in Every Country”, from the same book, rendered here with the insertion “if tended”) might jangle a few dormant ganglions, but overall, the dissimilarities are more immediate. It’s not set in Scotland. It’s not written in the vernacular (although the protagonist uses the expression “a cut of milk” when ordering coffee: even when he tells us he is speaking in dialect, this is rendered as Standard English). The distinctive quirkiness is almost wholly absent: there are some striking images (Vietnamese girls swimming in a hotel’s cold-water tank, a waiter having to assemble a kit of a DC-8-61-Stretch Series aircraft for the owner’s son) but these are pleasantly unusual rather than disconcertingly strange.

The central character, Manolo Follano, is a middle aged Spanish businessman, managing director of a profitable design agency, twice divorced, and elegantly attired in Ital-ian linen and a brittle carapace of world-weary sarcasm. Then he learns from his best friend that he is also HIV positive. His immediate reaction is to list the women with whom he has had sex, in part to determine from whom he received the condition, and in part to discover whom he may have infected. There is some peculiar, and not especially engaging, material about the toothsome new employee, a local beggar and an indigenous fern you can make a wish through, the upshot of all this being that Manolo installs the beggar in his swish penthouse, and tells him his life story.

For all the jaded, literary connoisseur-grabbing adjectives in the accompanying bumf (“savage”, “shocking”, “risks”, “wild”, all those PR-words, “one of Granta’s twenty Best of Young British Novelists”) this is remarkably tame stuff. Given the précis and asked to guess the author, various acquaintances came up with Pat Barker, Alan Sillitoe, Tobias Wolff, Tim Parks, John Banville (“Is he trying to be more popular?”) and Tony Parsons: indeed, one candid friend lamented “Lord, it could be anyone”. The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven is founded on a traditional conceit, indistinguishable in terms of its prose style (I read a few bits out, to make sure) and, in its own way, a diverting enough way to spend an afternoon. It is erroneously described as ‘Proustian’ (another PR- word!) – and it would take at least another 2000 words to adequately create an apt description for the method of A la Recherché du Temps Perdu. Suffice to say, here it is merely code for musing.

The ‘erotic reminiscences’ are mildly spicy, but hardly the full-on Eros/Thanatos conjunction that Juan Goytisolo, Bret Easton Ellis or Guillame Lescombe might have explored. Throughout the lip-smacking melancholy of Manolo’s catalogue of shags, there is one striking omission: the very reason why he is telling us all this. At no point does the narrator consider his responsibilities or his anger; instead, the whole raison d’être of the situation relapses into a convenient hold-all of stories. Yet again, Warner has found a way to make ostensible plot a mere pretext for blethering.(By the way, there is an internal explication that attempts to excuse this perpetual nostalgic maundering: as a reviewer, I can’t spoil the pirouette performed at the end, except to say that it spoiled the whole book for me).

As with the prior work, there are occasions of absolute charm – a memory of seeing Jaws, a funeral that switches between farce and fury, a late revelation of the tragedy that should have been the entire reason for the incessant story-telling – and, I suppose, I am saying that even though this novel is superficially and radically different, the underlying frustrations of Warner’s novels persist. The end of the novel – after the cheat of a revelation – is chaotic and worthy of a B-movie: yet despite the erratic rigmarole of putting the hero into a burning building, it is appreciated that we’ve already learnt his history with, fear of, and psychological bind to, blisters and water. It’s like a chair that you can’t sit on, but that has an ornate and delightfully carved splat (look it up, I’m not making this up).

On finishing The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven, I wondered if the fortysomething central character and the author might be mutually engaged in a bruising internal audit of their lives: Manolo can chalk up nearly a dozen entered vaginas, but no friends. Warner, it seems, has sat down, had a shave, straightened his tie and said “Aye, ah ken uv been offof ma face a’roving n a’scummin, but this week I will now be mostly writing a Book-erish novel”. In Warner’s previous novel, there was spectacular sourness about ‘Scottish’ cultural production. Apart from a dig at “Edinburgh publishers Carronaid”, and their scheme to reprint the Highway Code, there were two films lampooned in the text: a version of Kidnapped, which gullible Americans were assiduously missing the point of, and a Gaelic language Don Quixote, a project risible enough to be guaranteed Arts Council funding. Scotland, it seemed, couldn’t import or export literary ideas, nor could it sustain daring new authors. Might The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven be a massive retort to a subconsciously perceived parochialism or inferiority? A plea to be “an author”, not “a Scottish author”? Is the rave-child and indie-kid tired of not going platinum?

Sir Walter Scott, in his Lives of the Novelists, had a lovely phrase that described early energy becoming refined to the extent that it lost what was once admired: “sedulously laboured into excellence”. Warner’s new work has that feel about it. It aches with respectability, even as it strains to achieve it. In fact, I missed the verve, the daring and chanciness of his previous works, despite the fact that I have serious reservations about their actual accomplishments. Perhaps Art might learn a little from Science in this respect. A ‘failed experiment’ still proves something – if you don’t detect that dark matter signature, or link such and such a gene-sequence to whichever propensity, it’s still a result from which important things can be learned. It still opens avenues of thought.

Experimental literature is not afforded that generosity of vision. Personally, I would much rather read works that aim, as Milton said, to be “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme”, than scores more books detailing middle class adulterers, violent but poetic delinquents, split time-frame romances, alcoholic detectives, teenage angst or autism, novelists with writer’s block, the spiritual bankruptcy of the West, or the exotic poverty and moral virtue of anywhere else.

Warner’s previous work was disappointing, but only in the sense that with high stakes come a greater potential for the anticlimactic. The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven is an outright disappointment: it won’t please his fans, and it won’t convert the rest.


THE WORMS CAN CARRY ME TO HEAVEN
By Alan Warner
Jonathan Cape, £11.99
pp390, ISBN 0224071297

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