Just a Big Silver Light

Theo Tait

  • The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven by Alan Warner
    Cape, 390 pp, £11.99, May 2006, ISBN 0 224 07129 7

It’s not very clear what The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven is really about, or why Alan Warner has written it. It’s not that it’s conspicuously awful or straightforwardly confusing, like some of his other novels. It’s clear enough what’s happening and where; for the most part, it’s gently diverting, sometimes even entertaining. The wider questions, though, remain unanswered. Warner tells the story of Manolo Follana, a fairly unsuccessful playboy, aged 40, who still lives in the small, unnamed southern Spanish seaside resort town of his birth. Twice married, but now single, he has settled into the fastidious, slightly precious routines of a middle-aged bachelor, supported by his lucrative design agency. He has various enthusiasms. Collecting old guidebooks; ruminating a little pompously on his pet theory of ‘design flaw’: ‘Airliners crash. Doorknobs fall off. There is a consistent philosophy to design flaw.’ Most of all, he is sustained by the thought of sex, as he explains in determinedly unidiomatic English:

All life is not sex – far from it – but at least the possibility and the hope of romance energises a man like me. Believe us, those hopes make we men swing our legs out of bed on many a morning. Daily we have the slimmest chance of making love to a woman of our city with its summer strip of near nudity stretched along the sand, its crowded discothèques; the brown arms and legs, blue in the luxury shop lights of the street. Previous surprises show all women are vague possibilities, but just like those 52 playing cards inscribed in ballpoint with schoolgirl names from my institute, possibility itself is the thing.

This life of pleasant expectation is rudely interrupted when he learns from Tenis, his doctor and old friend, that he has got ‘the Condition’, clearly HIV. Tenis tells him to think about how he might have contracted the virus: ‘You must reflect. Your girlfriends.’ So Manolo returns home to his large, lavishly-appointed top-floor apartment by the sea, and writes out a list of all his sexual partners. This turns out to be quite modest: ten women and, long before HIV was a threat, one man. Even so, he reaches a decision: ‘I was not going to seek out and warn a single one of these women.’

The rest of the novel consists of a few mostly inconsequential adventures in the present, interspersed with reminiscences about his life, and particularly his sex life. Manolo gives lunch to an attractive new employee, and befriends an African illegal immigrant; he never actually makes it into his agency. We learn some Follana family history: how his father, originally a farmer from a village not far inland, made a good living running a seafront hotel, and then became rich by selling farmland for the new motorway. We are also brought up to date on Manolo’s sentimental education, from his early experiences with the naughty housemaid Madelaine, to his father’s death, and his two rather unfortunate marriages.

All the while, the reader’s doubts about the whole enterprise slowly stack up. First, there are technical niggles. Was it really necessary, for the fifth novel running, for Warner to use portentous Kafkaesque capitalisations: not just ‘the Condition’, which is perhaps understandable, but also ‘the Agency’, ‘the Capital city’ (why not the ‘Capital City’?), ‘the Phases Zone’, ‘the Old Ones’, and so on. Why, given that Manolo makes a long speech about his inability to remember his sexual experiences (‘what seemed like momentous landmarks have faded and reduced down to a few vague, poorly lit erotic scenes which are increasingly subjective and possibly inaccurate’), does he recall them, as the blurb writer argues, ‘with Proustian clarity’, and ‘in glowing Technicolor’? Is he, perhaps, one of those unreliable narrators we hear so much about? And if so, is that at all interesting?

Then the bigger doubts start rolling in. Why has Warner chosen to write a novel in English with a narrator who has ‘never learned to speak, or even read, English or North American or whatever it is called’? It allows him to produce a few discernible effects: there are some jokes, as when his characters ask ‘Where are you of?’ or exclaim ‘The Host!’, and he manages to create a linguistically unfamiliar perspective. But was it worth it? Because it means that this expressive and exhilarating prose stylist writes much of the novel in a weird and stilted translationese: ‘The young woman in her twenties, I remembered from the interviews, wearing interesting clothes and holding a large portfolio, walked by my table at Cena’s.’ In its less studiedly odd moments, Manolo’s voice manages some casual grace: ‘The damn weather was strange too,’ he begins. ‘There was no heat in the sun; it was just a big silver light.’ But mostly it’s facetious and difficult to follow.

Then there’s the setting. Warner’s previous novels have all been set primarily in or near the Port, a reimagining of the West Highland port of Oban where he grew up. They were all sustained, in different ways, by a sympathetic appreciation of the area’s people, language, landscape, history and myths. His experiment with a Spanish location and main character here seems misguided. Manolo ends up being very much a surface impression of Mediterranean manhood, particularly the mixture of machismo and prissiness that often seems comic to northern Europeans. Warner’s Spaniards’ lives are a succession of grand, eccentric passions, wild caprices, family grudges, sweaty sex scenes, deathbed curses – as Mediterranean and Hispanic lives in British writing often are. In short, it’s a foreigner’s vision: a dramatisation of the quirks and ‘colourful’ details that a travelling Brit might notice and be amused by, but which never gives access to a fully-fledged consciousness or a way of life.

There are some subtler moments: the evocation of what it’s like to grow up in a hotel, full of empty rooms in the off-season, achieves a depth seldom evident in the rest of the novel. However, such passages tend to get buried under the debris produced by the disparate plotlines, which become increasingly wild as the novel staggers to its finale and Warner desperately attempts to slap the whole thing into shape. Manolo’s first wife, a mathematician, believes she has discovered the algebraic formula for human violence, and goes slightly mad; marriage number two ends horribly in rape, insanity and suicide. Neither the reader nor, one suspects, the writer, cares much. Warner does provide a strange version of a plotted conclusion, in that a ‘twist’ heavily flagged in the first few pages materialises, as the reader has long suspected it might. But, perhaps recognising that this is not entirely satisfactory, he seems to decide that a symbolic resolution is necessary – and produces a raging conflagration at the hotel to finish things off.

Warner has long been obsessed with youth and its glamour. This is the real subject of Morvern Callar (1995) and The Sopranos (1998), the two excellent novels on which his big and well-deserved reputation stands. They both describe the lives of young women from the Port, and they both very convincingly romanticise being young, getting drunk, taking drugs, feeling excited, setting it all against what Warner clearly regards as the general drudgery, conformity and boringness of adult life, and specifically the lack of opportunity that he sees for his characters. This is how he hymns his choirgirls in The Sopranos:

They’ve youth; they’ll walk it out like a favourite pair trainers. It’s a poem this youth and why should they know it, as the five of them move up the empty corridors? We should get shoved aside cause they have it now, in glow of skin and liquid clarity of deep eye on coming June nights and cause it will go . . . After all what do we amount to but a load of old worn-out shoes?

This passage sums up both the great appeal of Warner’s writing and some of its weaknesses: the lyrical immediacy of the first two sentences, rooted in everyday speech but unusual and elevated at the same time; the slightly wobbly but still evocative third sentence; then the very poor final question, leaving the impression that there’s something thin – too adolescent – about his perspective.

In The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven, Warner goes from idolising youth to describing a mid-life crisis, and the result is not very convincing. It’s no coincidence that, even here, the best passages look back at the humiliations and joys of chasing girls as a teenager: Manolo strikes a genuinely original and compelling tone only when he describes his unusual courtship of two Vietnamese sisters, whom he woos with ice cream and a trip to see Jaws. His efforts culminate in clandestine trips to the reserve water tank at the top of the hotel, where they teach him how to swim, among other things. These odd, dreamlike sequences evoke something real about the mixed excitements and anxieties of adolescence. Otherwise, the novel manages to be both slight and overlong, a strange combination of facetiousness and brutality, little jokes and big ideas, which is occasionally striking, but soon fades from the mind. Charitably, it might be regarded as a ‘transitional’ novel.

It’s unclear whether Warner can graduate from being a sort of pop talent – I mean by that that he writes novels which, like good songs, are light, fast, exciting and sometimes beautiful – to something more solid and middle-aged. So far, his attempts to do so have not been promising. There is some good and interesting writing in both the surreal These Demented Lands (1997) and The Man who Walks (2002), a mixture of Beckettish tramp routines and Irvine Welsh-style porno-realism. But both seem to me ultimately very bad, rather like embarrassing and pretentious concept albums: full of show-offy references and silly avant-garde gestures. Judging from his interviews, Warner regards himself as a sort of modern-day Céline; delusions of grandeur, I’d say. ‘By the author of Morvern Callar and The Sopranos’, it says on the front of The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven. For the time being, that’s what Alan Warner remains.