Reviewers rarely feel it prudent to begin by confessing bafflement, but the admission may sometimes be unavoidable. This is my sentiment as I contemplate the four novels of Alan Warner. He has been highly praised (‘dazzling’, ‘classic’, ‘significant’, ‘vastly gifted’, ‘a genius’, ‘one of the most influential literary mould-breakers ever’), and I’m sure none of these eulogies, understandably preserved on the covers of his books, is entirely unmerited. But it is one thing to praise, and another to describe, the work that earned these compliments.
The first of the novels, Morvern Callar, appeared in 1995 and is still probably the most famous of the four. A BBC film version is said to be due this summer, and one wonders whether the language, often a mixture of dialect and dirt, will be purged for the benefit of the English portion of the audience, to say nothing of the prudes. But perhaps we will be expected to have come to terms by now with the Scots of James Kelman and Irvine Welsh, noting that the proportion of obscene language seems to be even higher in demotic Scots than in demotic English, at any rate in novels.
Somebody should look into this matter. The work ‘fuck’ and its derivatives were timidly admitted into English fiction after the Lady Chatterley trial. Angus Wilson and Iris Murdoch are said to have steeled themselves and forced the f-words into their prose. At first they fairly leaped off the page, but forty-odd years later they have settled in and may occur in almost any work of fiction.
In an essay on ‘Oaths and Laughter and Indecent Speech’, Piers Gray argues that we learn the ‘dirty’ words before we understand the acts to which they refer, so that when they are used in ways that have no direct relevance to those acts they reflect or recall a sort of childish innocence.Gray would not have supposed that this theory completely explains swearing, and it certainly doesn’t seem to explain Irvine Welsh’s usage, for in his work the words occur indifferently, whether the topic is sex or not, though it very often is. And he doesn’t strike one as having regressed to childish innocence. While I was reading these books I asked a Japanese professor if his native language made any comparable use of sexual terminology for non-sexual purposes, whether for realism or in order to enliven commonplace statements, perhaps even to improve their rhythm. A good English speaker himself, he thought about it for a moment and said no, Japanese lacked this resource, though people sometimes did say ‘shit!’
Perhaps the Gray theory fits Alan Warner a little better. A fantasist with an interest in folkish tales with modern settings, he presents a subtler problem. He does do Scots and has little compunction about reporting filth, but somehow he sounds more innocent. His language or rather his languages are peculiar to himself, and to the book in which they are used – for the novels are not linguistically uniform, whether in respect of the Scots dialect or the dirty talk. Morvern Callar is about a girl of that name who works in a supermarket. One morning she wakes up and finds that overnight her live-in boyfriend has cut his throat in the scullery and now lies there dead, while the Christmas tree lights continue to wink on and off. His computer screen is still lit.
Morvern’s reaction to a spectacle thus pregnant with horror is to light a Silk Cut, observing that he can no longer protest at her doing so. She then examines her Christmas presents, laid out at the foot of the tree, and weeps a little, touched by the useless little presents and the sadness of the world generally. Concerning what might be thought her most urgent problem she does almost nothing, and mentions it to nobody. Later she contrives to store his body in the loft beside his model railway. She continues to speak of Him as if He were alive. The capital she always gives his pronouns seems to suggest a certain respect for the victim, a hint of mourning. He remains a presence, now and later.
It is never hinted that Morvern is behaving badly or even oddly. She proceeds to live more or less contentedly on His money, spending much of it on bizarre drinks (Southern Comfort mixed with lager and Pernod), on holidays in Spain and, above all, on raves. Superannuated non-participants may have little idea of what can happen at a rave, but Warner makes one feel quite expert.
The idiosyncrasy established by this striking overture is reinforced by Morvern’s very distinctive language. It is only faintly Scots: ‘I stopped the greeting cause I couldnt breathe and was perished cold. I slowed down the flashing Christmas tree lights. I put on the scullery light then the immersion heater then the bar fire but I didn’t put a record on.’ She recalls stubbing out the cigarette in His blood.
Some, but not all, of her speech habits persist in the later novels. For example, using ‘she goes’ and ‘I goes’ for ‘she says’ and ‘I say’ is a familiar North American speech habit (she also calls the police ‘the Feds’). But Warner has taken it up and made very odd use of it, with perfect or pluperfect forms like ‘had goes’ – a new way of solving the old novelist’s problem of how to find enough elegant variations for ‘he/she said’, such as ‘he riposted’, or ‘she amusedly retorted’ and all the other Jamesian ploys, from ‘cried’, ‘murmured’ and ‘exclaimed’ to ‘ejaculated coquettishly’ (found, after a brief search, in The Bostonians).
Phrases are frequently repeated, and this, I suppose, is meant to provide an idiosyncratic rhythm: the expression ‘I used the goldish lighter on a Silk Cut’ occurs over and over again. Warner is full of tricks and surprises. It turns out that his heroine is, unexpectedly but usefully, a training novelist, already equipped with a gift of lyric observation:
You saw the deaf man concentrate, pouring the beer down the inside of the slightly tipped glass, then he took a long sip and you saw his poorly shaved neck jumping as he swallowed, swallowed. You focused on the constellations of minute bubbles slipping back down the inside of the cold glass that was wet with condensation. A strip of scorching sun was moving across my table, coming from a join in the awning above.
Nothing very Scots or indeed very demotic about that. It has polish. Morvern is weirdly detached; her powers of attention are considerable but are not accompanied by the more ordinary emotions. She notes the bubbles and the deaf man’s neck, just as she observed her lover’s blood – notes them, mentions them, and leaves them to themselves.
She returns as the narrator of part of Warner’s second novel, These Demented Lands (1997), and is almost drowned in the opening scene. The setting is of course absolutely Scottish, but the language of the heroine seems to have slipped further southwards. I have to admit I was never quite sure what was happening in this book. Morvern saves herself and a child when a ferry sinks, and after much walking fetches up at an odd hotel for honeymooners, run by a sinister man called Brotherhood who has something to do with a flying-boat that crashed. It seems a propeller has to be retrieved from the lake.
A corpse lies in a coffin that also contains his mobile phone, which can he heard to ring. A crazy pilot and various odd folks converse obscurely – a horned Knifegrinder, an Aircraft Crash Investigator, The One Who Walked the Skylines with Debris Held Aloft above His Head, and a Devil’s Advocate, deputed by the Vatican to look for flaws in the record of candidates for sainthood. He describes the heroine as one ‘who wanders these demented lands in days of the end’.
And so it goes on, occasionally acknowledging the influence of Golding’s Pincher Martin, another novel that sets out to confuse expectation and has much to do with water. The end is apocalyptic, the hotel aflame, Brotherhood drowning, Morvern giving birth to a daughter whose arrival is greeted by visits from three substitute Wise Men. Finally she writes a letter to her father about the beautiful granddaughter he will never see: ‘Forgive my elliptical style: I want you to die in the maximum possible confusion.’ Clearly she succeeds.
The Wise Men suggest a sketchy religious subplot, and the book ends with a reminiscence of the Christmas tree at the start of the first book; Morvern sets off with the Aircrash Investigator and the child, as if enacting the flight into Egypt. Perhaps he has found a genuine saint. Returning us from allegory to the commonplace, she lights a Silk Cut. I suppose the novel, which also contains a DJ who wants to set up a specially vast rave, is itself a rave, with a coherence perceptible only under its influence. Certainly one feels as if ordinary perception is suspended.
The Sopranos (1999) is something of a relief, funny and horrible in more intelligible ways. The sopranos are girls from a Catholic school, Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, and each of them, introduced according to voice pitch and inside leg measurement, is given the novelist’s close attention. On an unwisely permitted spree in the vacant hours before a choral competition, they ravage the shops, pubs and clubs of Edinburgh. Their language is colloquial Scots, though that of the narrator remains free and inventive: ‘A few cassandras of laughter tremelled along the wall.’ St Trinian’s produced nothing like these girls, and their talk and conduct might have surprised, even pleased the young Philip Larkin. Pregnancy and pornography, drink and cigarettes, always including Silk Cut, foul and blasphemous language, all seem to pass virtually unnoticed by their teacher, Sister Condron, known as Sister Condom, whose main concern is with their incorrectly coloured shoelaces, their illicit earrings and their duty towards the school, Our Lady and God. Some childish things they have not put away – hamburgers and chocolates and ices – but Southern Comfort with Coke isn’t a little girl’s drink and large-scale shoplifting is dangerous.
The farcical outrageousness is superficial. Warner, as usual, dwells on the cruelty of disease and age and disastrous pregnancies. When the girls express the interests and mimic the vocabulary of yobbos, they are defending themselves against the very things they name. And their fantasies lead them into disasters. They are called ‘insecure’ but reject the word in favour of ‘scared’. What is ‘Perpetual’ is not Succour but pain. After the scandal of the choir’s performance we are left with one sick girl facing death and the others threatened with expulsion, a fate they are given a chance to escape if they will falsely testify to a miracle. Despite it all, they are too honest to do that, and accept ‘everything that was going to happen until the end’.
It’s an extraordinary book, full of shocks and brilliance and sadness. With Miss Brodie’s girls in mind one suspects Scottish schools of a special talent for teaching girls that tragedy can be deferred, but not prevented, by carnival defiance.
This new book, The Man Who Walks, is written in English for the most part, though with a lot of ‘he goes’ and several occurrences of what seems a newly fascinating expletive, ‘yacuntya’. On the other hand, posh words are admitted, as when the Nephew, in pursuit of the Uncle, moves into darkness, ‘the complete black, an eidetic country, made out of memory alone’. The landscape is ancient, but modernised by invasions of ballooning garbage bags. The Nephew needs to find the heroic, drunken Uncle, who seems to have stolen the World Cup kitty from a pub called The Mantrap, earlier used by the Sopranos. There are other backward glances, as when Morvern’s father makes an appearance, still under the impression that his daughter, the novelist, was drowned when the ferry sank.
The story is partly obscured by masses of strange and not immediately relevant detail, though the detail is really what counts. A sort of irresponsible exuberance, a clash of lexicons, is part of the method: ‘he was cooried among fecund verdure, pale undersides of bramble leaves swaying close to his cheek, so he turned aside, trying to jalouse how to cross a loch.’ (If you don’t care for jalouse, it has the authority of Scott, but he uses it with the sense ‘being suspicious about’, and that now seems to be lost.)
As well as being a terrible drunk, the Uncle has a disability: he cannot walk uphill, a grave handicap in Scotland, but compensates with hideous ingenuity. The quest is devious; anything can be included by way of diversion: Buddhist snowboarders, potheads, ghosts, people as strange as ghosts, like the hitchhiker who signals by jumping up and down because he has no arms – he ‘danced the tango with an auto-thresher and walked calmly to the phone box, dialled 999 with his nose, knew if he ran he’d bleed to death.’ A scene from Beckett, perhaps, and Beckett seems to be one of the presiding geniuses. ‘After he’d taken out the glass eye he poked into the dark recess of the socket and beneath the little flap of skin he removed a small tin-foil package of cannabis resin.’
The fact is that this is not really a book to be mapped: you have to take it as it comes, including the politics and the sex and all the other aspects of the human condition that can be made to seem completely fantastic. Somebody is filming Stevenson’s Kidnapped with a black Alan Breck, there is a plan to do Don Quixote as a spaghetti Western, but in Gaelic and set in the Highlands, with Lottery funding. Culloden, or a nearby airport, becomes vaguely important. And so on and on. The Man Who Walks and his Nephew do of course come together, but everything ends in a scene of quite exceptional nastiness.
Critics have called Warner’s books hilarious, and so at times they are, but that isn’t really the point. For example, they don’t at all resemble At Swim-Two-Birds. The extravagance, the gaiety, like the quest, end in horror. One can’t separate boisterous inventiveness from a profound disgust; religion, philosophy, wisdom are mixed in the narrative with all manner of outrage. The woman in Beckett’s All That Fall cries out: ‘Christ, what a planet!’ – a phrase that might have figured among the many learned epigraphs that adorn these sophisticated, bewildering and dismaying books.