Mortal on Hooch

William Fiennes

  • The Sopranos by Alan Warner
    Cape, 336 pp, £9.99, June 1998, ISBN 0 224 05108 3

Morvern Callar, the narrator of Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar (1995) and These Demented Lands (1997), reacts to the suicide of her boyfriend by lighting a Silk Cut, opening her Christmas presents and shaving her legs in a hot bath. The boyfriend is lying in a pool of blood but Morvern remains emotionally numb: ‘Trying to get in the oven to heat up the pizza. His body caused the usual hassles but I soon had it underway.’ When she buries his body parts in the nearby mountains, Morvern is alert only to the bracken whacking her thighs, the stain of peaty water on her forearms, the heads of moor cotton whipping against her ankles, the beads of dew hanging from the tips of ferns. Her sensibility is as exquisite as her conscience is rudimentary.

That sensibility becomes even more refined when Morvern travels to the Mediterranean. She looks closely at beer, noting ‘the constellations of minute bubbles slipping back down the inside of the cold glass that was wet with condensation’. She tells us: ‘When I snubbed out the butt you saw the loveliness of colours: my nails, the glittery gold Sobranie filter in the ashtray with the bright, tousled strips of orange peel among’: ‘tousled’ gives the game away – the token of a literateness which the childlike solecism of that end-of-sentence ‘among’ cannot fully conceal. She observes ‘peacocks’ eyes of olive oil skimming atop the vinegar, dapples of black pepper and tawny streaks of mustard popped onto the biggest leaf of lettuce’. ‘Peacocks’ eyes’, ‘dapples’, ‘tawny’ – all signature notes of the mandarin sensibility of an Updike or Nabokov.

Morvern’s voice has been praised for its originality, but being original is not the same as being true: her prose is a trick, an artful ventriloquism. A handful of devices – dropped articles, prepositions at the end of sentences, a child’s quaint idiom and coinages (‘diddleypush’, ‘rainbowy’) – are used to make this rhetorically self-conscious prose suggest the voice of a shelf-stacker in an Oban superstore. In the first novel one didn’t argue with this sleight-of-hand, partly because Morvern’s oddnesses were so seductive and her imagery so beautiful, but most of all because the book made such a strong case for the proposition that, between them, the Spanish Mediterranean, house music and pharmaceutical experimentation really did contain all the genius and wonder of the world.

But in Morvern’s second outing, These Demented Lands, the rhetorical self-consciousness became wearying. Warner experimented with the varying line-lengths of free verse, and even with rhyme: ‘A constellation of pinkish bubbles rose up under my feet then drifted, swole, each bubble’s angle reflecting a diamond nova from both its north and south pole.’ The swole/pole consonance is an alienation effect, immediately drawing attention to the writer’s exertions, and one wonders where exactly Morvern’s lexicology had encountered the Miltonic ‘swole’ or the astronomical precision of ‘nova’. Suddenly she seemed to have read a lot of books. She refers to Joseph Conrad, William Golding’s Pincher Martin and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. Morvern’s palette has expanded to encompass the Updikean spectrum of emerald, cyan and tangerine. She uses the word ‘whorls’.

That this was Alan Warner’s voice rather than Morvern Callar’s seemed confirmed when someone else took over the narration. These Demented Lands is narrated in part by a character called Aircrash Investigator, and his prose style is uncannily similar to Morvern’s. He, too, uses the word ‘whorls’. He employs the Morvernish colour-term ‘buttermilky’. He has an eye for ‘the purple bruises of bluebell banks’ (the phrase as purple as the banks) and for the ‘archipelagos of iridescence’ left by washing-up liquid. The narrative passes from one precious sensibility to another.

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