Morvern Callar has lived for the whole of her 21 years so far in the Port, a depressed tourist trap somewhere on the west coast of Scotland, where the mountains meet the sea. She left school early, at the age of 15, to take up a job on the fruit-and-vegetable counter of the local superstore. A year later she met her boyfriend, 13 years her senior, the wealthy son of a nearby hotel-keeper, recently come home after years of travelling ‘in countries’. So Morvern moved out of her fosterdad’s flat in the Complex, losing the friendship of her old gang as she did so. These days, she sometimes goes out with Lanna from the bakery counter while her boyfriend stays at home, busy on his computer, working on the model-railway version of his birthplace he keeps hidden in the loft.
Or that, at least, is what one surmises about Morvern Callar’s last five years. But actually, she starts her story off like this:
He’d cut His throat with the knife. He’d near chopped off His hand with the meal cleaver. He couldnt object so I lit a Silk Cut. A sort of wave of something was going across me. There was fright but I’d daydreamed how I’d be.
He was bare and dead face-down on the scullery lino with blood round. The Christmas tree lights were on then off. You could change the speed those ones flashed at. Over and over you saw Him stretched out then the pitch dark with His computer screen still on.
‘A sort of wave of something was going across me’: this is not the vagueness of sloppy writing, but a precise evocation of a vagueness beyond vague. ‘There was fright’: the impersonal voice immediately floats the reader into a disembodied, passive, affectless space, although all these adjectives carry with them negative connotations, which isn’t right in this context at all.‘The’ knife. ‘The’ meat cleaver ... Which knife? Which meat cleaver? And I haven’t yet mentioned the thrill and terror mixed arising from the every sight of that capital H for Him.
What sort of novel do you suppose Alan Warner imagined himself first writing? A young boy’s life among the mountains he loved and which constrained him? A piece of social realism, about how hard life is for the isolated, economically marginal clumps of working-class people scattered here and there around the bonnie Scottish hills? The tragic tale of a man who loves and so destroys the careless young woman on whom he projects his fantasies of woman as wild and chthonic nymph? These are the sorts of story young men most often tell in their first novels. And you can still sense the germs of all of them buried in Morvern Callar, little fizz-bombs of narrative potential, sticking their heads up here and there around the roots and tendrils of the plot.
None of them, however, is ever allowed to come to the surface. For, on the surface of the story, there is no place for them to rest. Page one, para one, and already the He is dead and sinking down the mix, like a pop melody under a dance production, fighting it out for our attention with cigarettes and fairy lights. And not fighting with much conviction, you will note, particularly once the lights are observed to be of the sort that go on then off. ‘I LOVE YOU MORVERN; FEEL MY LOVE IN THE EVENINGS IN THE CORNER OF ALL THE ROOMS YOU WILL BE IN. KEEP YOUR CONSCIENCE IMMACULATE AND LIVE THE LIFE PEOPLE LIKE ME HAVE DENIED YOU. YOU ARE BETTER THANUS,’ He has written in the suicide note Morvern finds on the computer. Whichever of Warner’s observations and feelings and desires survived this rhetorical self-slaughter, they will come to us only after they have passed through Morvern’s idle and careless hands.
After weeping a bit, and warming her knickers over the kettle, and going to the toilet, ‘remembering always to wipe backwards’, Morvern decides to open her Christmas presents early: ‘a polished steerhide jacket, a packet of yellowish low denier stockings, a lighter that looked goldish, a basque thing all silky and a dear-looking Walkman with batteries in’. Yellowish, goldish, a basque thing all silky and a dear-looking Walkman with batteries in. Which then is more real, the colour or the thing to which it is attributed, the colour or the wafty ‘-ish’qualifying it, the Walkman or the batteries or the rather impressive price? And isn’t it wicked to open your presents in front of a dead man, as if by not opening them you might somehow bring him back to life?
Armed with her new finery, off Morvern goes to the superstore as usual. Later, she will go out with Lanna to the Mantrap, where the pair get, as they put it, ‘mortal’, resulting in a nasty cold. Later yet, Morvern will do a spot of camping, living, as she calls it, ‘in nature’. And later yet, she will travel to a Youth Med resort. On the way, we will observe her getting mortal often: on beer, or Southern Comfort, or Southern Comfort mixed with Bailey’s, or cider and lager mixed in a snakebite together with a shot of Pernod and a spot of black, or on a tab of this or that. And Morvern does very thoroughly for the misconception that it is only men who think of music in terms of playlists. Between His stuff and her own, she comes up with some extraordinary selections, darkside ambient: Magazine, PM Dawn, Bill Laswell, Salif Keita and Can.
‘EVERYTHING HAS BEEN ARRANGED,’ He wrote in His suicide note; as indeed it has. He turns out to have left Morvern £44,771.79: enough to propel a young woman straight out of the dole-or-superstore wage economy and into the rock-star silly-money realm of instant gratification. From author’s death to story’s end, Morvern will be able to buy herself just as many Silk Cuts and Southern Comforts, clothes, CDs, beauty products and holidays as a girl could ever want. And she certainly does so. But what is really important about the money is that it gives her the wherewithal to escape.
Port society, as it meets for a drink in the Mantrap, is despairing, drink-sodden and sour. Morvern’s fosterdad. Red Hanna, is a once radical railway worker struggling with the realisation that he’s just wasted most of his life in thankless overtime hours. Lanna will take sex wherever she finds it, not out of desire so much as because there doesn’t seem to be anything else to do. A stripper is nearly gang-raped when she does a guest spot at the Mantrap. A burnt-out old acid-head cheerfully remembers his young days as a trapper in Canada. He had an Indian wife called Laughs Like Water, and one day he just blew her head off with a gun. ‘No big pleasures for the likes of us, eh?’ muses Morvern’s fosterdad. ‘Heres you, twenty-one, a forty-hour week on slave wages for the rest of your life; theres no much room for poetry there, eh?’ But Morvern has been given her chance for big pleasures, and she seizes it with gusto. She uses her money to buy herself happiness, or the nearest things to it: spare time, sunshine, solitude, a salad and bread whenever she wants it, long nights of glorious communality in the pulsating catacombs of the Balearic clubs.
And Morvern’s creator has left her with a gift even more precious than the money: he has made her beautiful. We can tell she is beautiful from the outside, from the way everybody around her reacts to her strange stillness, from the lads she chooses to snog and sleep with, from Couris Jean, the old Gaelic-speaking granny, who finds in her face the image of ‘an angel come down to this earth’. And we can tell she is beautiful from the inside because she carries its mark with her everywhere, in the streak of Christmas glitter buried deep and sparkling in the skin of her knee. Like the love she has known and the money she has come into, Morvern’s beauty frees her from pointless want. Unlike a real-life woman, she does not paint her toenails or moisturise her body from an impulse based at bottom on insecurity, a sense that no matter how nice she looks, she can never look nice enough. Whatever she does with her body, she does it purely for pleasure and preening. This is a rigorous and self-aware fantasy projection. How can the male gaze ever intrude on an image of shameless, self-sufficient perfection? How can it be thought, come to that, to be intruding on an image entirely made by itself?
For Warner is of course everywhere in this story, in the corner of every room, at the edge of every word. He is there in Morvern’s surroundings, a village bounded on the one side by mountains and on the other by the sea, with a couple of council estates, a couple of bars, and then some richer houses and a big hotel as you move out and up the road. Sometimes this village is the damp and downtrodden Scottish port; sometimes it’s a blazing hot and glorious Balearic resort. And sometimes, it’s the boyfriend’s model railway, with the corpse of a man laid out on it, like Gulliver. No matter how far you travel, from one edge of Europe to the other, in the modern world all human settlements are laid out much the same. But for Morvern, earth-bound angel that she is, the bonds found in such echoes and correspondences are not expressive of human nature alone. In the shape of her own face unpeeled as a face-pack she finds an image of Platonic infinity, the unfolding of form on form. She follows a religious procession, watching the faithful as they set light to ‘the virgin saint girl’, sinking her with fireworks in the sea. ‘At dawn when I swam out I found young girls in masks already there swimming in circles trying to see her burned face looking up at us from the seabed below.’ And then Morvern wanders trippingly from the club in which she has been dancing and into that good night:
Across the orchard there was something else. You could see part of a giant blue eye in pale light. I stepped into the lemon and apricot trees. You could see the top of the concrete screen at the late-night drive-in cinema ... The massive pale lips of a girl seemed to turn up to the night sky ready for kissing and you could see the light from the screen flicker on the leaves. I turned facing the sea. You heard a drip come off of my hair. I closed my eyes there in the quietness of just breathing in and breathing in. I hadnt slept for three days so I could know every minute of that happiness that I never even dared dream I had the right.
It is in her moments of greatest serenity that our heroine is revealed most clearly as herself a poetic image, centrifugal and spiralling ever outward, crashing with the sky, the moon, the stars. The movement, the fusion, the joy and then the sorrow of it is romantic in the big sense, but with an extra tension to it. For the author, there is the sublime impossibility of ever fusing with this woman he has created. For the reader, there is the confusion even of knowing who it is precisely that you want to fuse with: the author who has concealed himself so cleverly? The fictional construct whom we have come to know so well? Again, this puzzlement only makes explicit the reader’s relationship to all narrators. It is when you come closest to touching them that you most painfully realise that they’re only shapes made out of words.
I started recommending this novel to people as the ‘first great rave novel’. Then if that didn’t work: ‘Man writes as woman. Scottish. Puffed by Irvine Welsh.’ And such excellent dance writing:
The way Sacaea was doing it the music was just a huge journey in that darkness ... I slid my foot to the left. You felt the whole side of a face lay against my bare back, between shoulder blades. It was still part of our dance. If the movement wasnt in rhythm it would have changed the meaning of the face sticking there in the sweat. You didnt really have your body as your own, it was part of the dance, the movement, the rave.
If that doesn‘t work, I try comparing it to The Great Gatsby. The same effortless surface, with an immaculate craft going on underneath. The same bold, lucid use of outrageously gilded images, worked into the texture of an otherwise quiet prose. The same structural ambivalence. All of which are just pretentious ways of trying to say something like: you’ll whizz through it like a hot knife through butter, but I’ve read it now several times and I still can’t pin it down. Like The Great Gatsby, Morvern Callar is a novel of hedonistic pleasures, celebrated for their fleeting joy, but with the economic reality principle never that far away: boats beating against the current, borne back ceaselessly towards the thing they were trying to escape from. Without this rhythm, Morvern’s adventures would change their meaning.