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.

Morvern encounters Aircrash Investigator when she winds up on an island populated exclusively by rejects from Mad Max movies: an alcoholic helicopter pilot called Nam the Dam; ‘some kind of crazy salvage-diver-cum-Armada-treasure-hunter’ called Argonaut; drifters like Knifegrinder and DJ Cormorant; Chef Macbeth with his remote-controlled planes; and sinister John Brotherhood, the focus for a series of portentous references to the Devil, and for stories of sexual depravity involving Siamese twins. Brotherhood says things like ‘Nails travelling at 300 m.p.h. can make quite a decoration on a child’s body.’ Aircrash Investigator’s idea of good conversation is: ‘You fear underworlds where the seabed is the earth, the unsteady surface a new sky, you hate the Living Things: basking shark or angler fish that might brush against your bare leg and those rudders and propellers.’ These guys could bore for Scotland.

The Sopranos is a lot more fun. Once again we are in ‘the Port’, Morvern’s home patch: a harbour town on the west coast of Scotland, easily recognisable as Oban. It’s here that we’re introduced to the sopranos of the fifth-year choir of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour’s School for Girls: the naturally aristocratic Fionnula (the Cooler); Orla, who is dying of Hodgkin’s disease and has undergone the traumas of radiotherapy and Lourdes; Chell, who adores animals; Manda, who lives with her father some way below the poverty line; and Kylah, who sings in a band called Lemonfinger and loves the Cocteau Twins. This gang are united in their disdain for the fee-paying, university-bound and ‘snobby’ Kay Clarke, and in their determination to have a good time in Edinburgh, where they are due to compete in the national singing finals.

The bus is hardly out of Oban before the girls are getting wasted on alco-pops and losing their clothes to strip poker. Stopping for a break at the Rest and Be Thankful Hotel, they quickly terrorise a party of elderly American tourists. Once in Edinburgh, Sister Condron (a.k.a. Sister Condom) says: ‘You will carry yourself with grace through this city today’ – an exhortation which the sopranos take up like a gauntlet. They stuff themselves at McDonald’s. They swap their school uniforms for velvety body stockings, funky short skirts and leopard-print tangas. They head straight for the pub. They get started with a Sambuca challenge, washing down the flaming shots of liquor with Hooch chasers.

The novel follows the girls on the razzle around Edinburgh, a tour that takes in several pubs, a police station and the Accident and Emergency unit at Little France General Hospital. Kylah calls up the guys in Lemonfinger to tell them she’s quitting the band. A club called the Pill Box is selected as a late-afternoon rendezvous, and it’s here that Orla falls in love and Manda and Chell fall in with the wrong crowd. Soon they are in a flat belonging to a man called Velcro Suit. This is not a good idea: Velcro Suit likes to rub squid ink into his shaved armpits in order to maintain an erection.

Fionnula, meanwhile, has wound up in a bar with Kay Clarke, and the two of them are getting way out of it on tequila, gin and Bloody Marys. Kay turns out to be a bit of a swinger, and Warner soon warms to the idea that they might actually fancy each other. ‘She leaned close to Kay, but cause of the distance of the stools apart, an so’s her face could be hid ahind Kay, away fro the women’s view, Fionnula was so over, that when she talked, Kay could feel the breath on her bare leg then the hair slid over the shiny blueness of Fionnula’s shirt and with a cracky hiss, slumped, in gremial intimacy, into Kay’s lap.’

Warner has ventured into this girl-on-girl territory before. Morvern Callar had a friend called Lanna who works in the bakery at the superstore – a good job to have from Warner’s point of view, since it means that when we first meet her she can be licking doughnut sugar from her fingers. It isn’t long before Morvern and Lanna are slipping into little black dresses and suspenders and basques and slugging back Southern Comforts in a public toilet: ‘Lanna’s hair touched my eyelashes while she leaned across tightening the bits on the suspenders.’ The novel’s eroticism rarely departs from that male fantasy domain in which nothing is quite so titillating as the idea of two pretty girls taking a shower together. Soon, Morvern and Lanna are taking a shower together. ‘We tried not to get hair wet and soaped each other ... I washed in myself again that day and Lanna put her hand up on the tiles to wash right in her.’ Later the two girls go to visit Couris Jean, Lanna’s grandmother, and take a bath together. ‘We sat in the steam then Lanna shampooed my hair and I did hers at the same time, our arms reaching and stretching to lather up our heads.’ Back in Kay’s bedroom at the end of The Sopranos, Fionnula waits on the bed while Kay takes a shower.

This is not the only instance of déjà vu in Warner’s novels. One of the subplots in The Sopranos reaches a climax with the police’s discovery of a private stash of marijuana plants – a reminder of the story Panatine had told in Morvern Callar which had exactly the same dénouement. The first section of that novel borrowed much of its action from Ian McEwan (the body kept in the house in The Cement Garden; the corpse cut up into pieces in The Innocent). These Demented Lands revisits the weird island setting of John Banville’s Ghosts. One section of The Sopranos is laid out as a screenplay, which would have been more of an innovation if Joyce had not already presented Chapter 15 of Ulysses in the form of a script.

Warner’s magic realism is not that of Marquez and Rushdie but of Michael Ondaatje, whose magical images do not require any supernatural explanation. Morvern’s knee sparkles with different-coloured specks because she once slid on her knees and grazed her skin across the glitter of a Christmas card. Lanna’s grandmother remembers white horses bursting out of the sea onto the sand, ‘rearing up onto the beach, a dozen horses, two dozen horses running in front of me and splashing drops of salty water on my face while two score more horses came out of the sea, running in front of me and running behind me’. This vision was not a dream: a cargo boat carrying horses for the war had capsized offshore. In The Sopranos, Warner describes the escape of the parrot Lord Bolivia which Sister Fagan the Pagan had brought back from her South American sabbatical: ‘Look! Kay Clarke pointed up, her cheek to the mournful clouds so half her face seemed blue, the other invisible and the ground levels world slowed ... stopped as, wings wide, Lord Bolivia’s red head, pink-yellow and green wings, moved over the choir, like a happiness that wasn’t allowed below such skies, against these curt roof angles of slate and granite.’

Sometimes the movements of Warner’s plots seem motivated less by logic or the exigencies of character than by the prospect of one of these knock-out tableaux. Wearing tight plastic gloves, Morvern lugs her boyfriend’s body up into the loft and raises it with pulleys onto the model village he has built there. Why? Partly to conceal the body, but more importantly so that snow can fall through the skylight and spin down through moonlight onto the dead man’s lips while Stravinsky plays on the stereo. The beautiful moment is stage-managed.

The style of all three novels is characterised by the conjunction of the colloquial with the high aesthetic. Morvern used a series of vivid Scottish synonyms: not crying but greeting, not sexy but rampant, not drunk but mortal, not armpits but oxters, not vomit but boak. The vernacular of The Sopranos includes the verbs skelpted, cooried, fankled and scooshed. Some of Warner’s inventions nod to Joyce (the ‘sun-usedness’ of a road’s macadam) and some to Dylan Thomas (‘the mangle of winter-fall before just the owl-black, pine marten world began’). Some have a distinctive character of their own, as when Warner records that ‘a few cassandras of laugh tremelled along the wall.’

Despite the sparkle of such coinage and slang, Warner’s prose has not lost its tendency to Updikean preciousness. Describing the statue of Our Lady, Warner observes ‘a tiny curlicue of sparrow’s dropping’ on her hand. A girl’s rich and rounded smoker’s cough is ‘tinted with goggles of potential phlegm’. In McDonald’s, Kylah is seen ‘puff-puffing onto a scorching-looking black coffee, the white steam cluttering off it, vapour matching the white rim of the paper cup, above the disturbed black liquid’. Sometimes the writing hits a vatic note: ‘The whole landscape was massively ancient, under scattered screes, the exposed cliffs below the glacial glens showing time wasn’t finished with the world here. A landscape from an age unslept.’ Or later, on the bus back to Oban: ‘Then as the chain of villages began, even Kay’s body stirred, as if some old, hoary memory stirred, even in the youngest hearts that Time hadn’t had occasion to polish properly yet.’ Such pronouncements loom like menhirs in the midst of the girls’ spritely exchanges.

These two modes exist in uneasy tension. Warner quotes Malcolm Lowry. He incorporates into the narrative a line from a poem by Apollinaire. He alludes to Lunar Caustic, Lowry’s account of a spell in Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital, New York. He has Father Ardlui listening to Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps. Meanwhile, the girls are talking about Kurt Cobain and Ricki Lake and Montel Williams and Keyser Soze from The Usual Suspects and the fact that Wonderbra model Eva Herzigova is married to Jon Bon Jovi’s drummer. Warner’s prose implies an extremely literate, aesthetic sensibility: the sopranos, one imagines, would quickly tell an aesthetic sensibility exactly what it should do with itself.

After the singing competition, the girls return to the Port and head straight for the club known as the Mantrap, one of Morvern’s favourite haunts. Their epic bender only comes to an end the next morning, when they meet up in the station buffet, washing down Full Breakfasts with Cokes and coffee, listening to Bunny Wailer’s ‘The Oppressed Song’ on the juke box. Now they are a gang again, an Ecstasy-generation St Trinians, primed, like the gangs of The Commitments and Trainspotting, for the big screen. The film rights have already been sold: for much of its length The Sopranos seems to have one eye on the movies, even though film has no equivalent to Warner’s metaphorical inspirations, to those passing mentions of the burned fringes of a fried egg which ‘bubbled like treacle toffee’; ‘a daddy-long-legs as frail as the filaments in a bulb’; the sopranos singing – ‘an immediate beauty, like flags cracking in the wind’.