‘Don’t scum me out!’
- The Stars in the Bright Sky by Alan Warner
Vintage, 394 pp, £7.99, May 2011, ISBN 978 0 09 946182 1
‘Airports,’ J.G. Ballard noted, ‘seem to be almost the only form of public architecture free from the pressures of kitsch or nostalgia. As far as I know, there are no half-timbered terminal buildings or pebble-dashed control towers.’ Alan Warner isn’t a novelist you’d expect to be much interested in the departures hall, being best known for a sort of wild provincial fabulism. Each of his first five books is saturated with ‘place’, using skewed dialect and surreal local legend to transform tourist traps (usually in the Highlands, but with occasional trips to the Costa del Sol) into strangely heightened fictive worlds. His towns tend to ignore the tourist gaze, rich with their own gossipy lore.
Gatwick Airport is therefore an incongruous setting for the sequel to Warner’s third novel, The Sopranos. Airports do the opposite of what his novels do, annihilating intimacy and a sense of place. Only a very mulish futurist could accept Ballard’s vision of the airport as the ideal urban space (‘the concourses are the ramblas and agoras of the future city … where briefly we become true world citizens’), but his wilful celebration of its hinterland has its reflection in Warner’s The Stars in the Bright Sky. ‘In addition to the airport itself,’ Ballard wrote,
I value the benevolent social and architectural influence that a huge transit facility such as Heathrow casts on the urban landscape around it. I have learned to like the intricate network of perimeter roads, the car-rental offices, air freight depots and travel clinics, the light industrial and motel architecture that unvaryingly surrounds every major airport in the world.
Warner populates this dismal zone with six young women, his solution to the transience and wipe-clean nullity of the place.
In The Sopranos a tribe of Catholic schoolgirls travel from their unspecified West Highland port town (a version of Oban) to the Capital (a thinly veiled Edinburgh) for a singing competition. The choir contest is rapidly forgotten while the girls’ hyperbolic drunken and sexual misadventures are conveyed in busy, demotic prose that is both exhilarating and utterly convincing. Kylah, Chell, Manda, Orla, Finn and Kay’s talk about nail varnish, abortions and hand-jobs is rendered with such unnerving conviction that there is no impulse to moralise. And we’re not meant to. We simply enjoy their exuberance:
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?
In the sequel the girls are three years out of school; Kylah and Chell share a flat in the Port, doing dead-end jobs in retail and tourism. They still see a lot of Manda, who works in her sister’s hair salon when she isn’t looking after her son, ‘wee Sean’. Manda’s ‘ghastly impregnator’ is out of the picture, which gives her licence to indulge in ‘single-mother martyrdom’ with the other Port girls. Kay, Finn and Ava are at university in Edinburgh and London, studying subjects like architecture and philosophy. (Ava is the group’s posh, English and alluring replacement for Orla, who has succumbed to the Hodgkin’s disease she battles in The Sopranos.)
The novel opens with the girls reconvening for an ’avin-it-large holiday. ‘We don’t know where we’re headed,’ crows Manda, a romantic quester for the drop-down age, as she anticipates the thrill of selecting ‘one of these last-minute package deal things’ online. Waiting long enough but not too long is the trick here, as it is with reunions. The student girls have stayed in touch with the others, but only just, and as the full group reassembles at a cheap hotel wedged in the airport’s exoskeleton (having travelled separately from Scotland and London), it becomes clear that the group’s easy friendship has gone. So too has the intimacy and directness of Warner’s style:
Halted adjacent to Flight Deck Hotel’s illuminated, hexagonally inspired glass lobby, the Hotel Hoppa passengers stood up from their seats. The bus driver stepped down through the pneumatic front door and there were almost immediate muffled bumpings as he opened the luggage panniers below the low flooring.
Moving importantly, Manda was first off after the front travellers. Behind her, holding their metallic vanity cases, came Kylah and Chell, free thumbs immediately firing up the lime or purple faces of their mobile phones, checking again for an unlikely inflow of urgent texts from home. With the laptop computer case strap slung across her front like a bandolier, Kay Clarke followed.
High above them, in the nightsome heavens, the rotational movements of the aeroplanes were utterly obscured.
The detachment of this scene contrasts sharply with the earlier novel, which took an access-all-areas approach to the girls’ minds and bodies. The possibility of male voyeurism in The Sopranos, however, was largely avoided by Warner’s strategy of enveloping the narrative voice in the idioms and affinities of the gang, and preventing us from knowing any more than they did. Here, heavily signposted mystery (‘utterly obscured’) takes the place of the earlier novel’s seductive unfathomability (‘a few cassandras of laugh tremelled along the wall’).
For Ballard the pleasure of checking in lies in renouncing our civic obligations to become ‘passengers for whom all destinations are theoretically open, our lightness of baggage mandated by the system’. Warner takes up this paradoxical feeling of escape and subjection. He confects a few soapy twists in order to keep the girls in the airport for as long as possible. As they are about to leave for Benidorm, Manda can’t find her passport, triggering a lengthy search and crisis of camaraderie (will the others leave her behind?). In the end all the girls elect to miss the plane and spend an extra night in the airport. Eventually they rebook flights to Las Vegas. The newcomer, Ava, is briefly suspected of stealing the passport, but her real vice turns out to be cocaine, which she manages to procure from her London dealer without leaving Gatwick. The excellence of Ava’s curves sends a flicker of homoerotic tension through the group. As ever, Warner’s leering feels anything but girl-on-girl: ‘All three young women at the table watched Ava move towards the bar. Let’s be frank: Ava was wearing boot-cut jeans that afternoon and all three scrutinised and evaluated her arse as she went. Manda was looking for some avenue of criticism; but it was pretty clear there was absolutely none.’ This blokeish ‘frankness’ is also evident when, in a moment of early morning dishevelment, Chell observes ‘“You’ve got a nice tit there, Ava,” … in her usual brusque but encouraging manner.’ But the talk of sex doesn’t lead to anything. Warner focuses instead on the girls’ banter: they mooch around the airport ‘village’ trading stories about drink, clothes and sex, indulge in some hometown gossip and schoolgirl bickering, and the drama that emerges grows from our awareness that they are palpably no longer a set, and don’t possess their old rampant exuberance. Some of the novel’s best observed scenes concern the unspoken pressure to conceal, both from themselves and from each other, the separate trajectories of the two tribelets. While the students, flush with possibility, try out their new bookishness on one another, for the girls stuck in the Port nostalgia for the old days will soon be all they have to look forward to.
Warner makes use of the Lego-like uniformity of airport design: the South Terminal, ‘big as a Nile cataract’, obeys an ‘architecture of modular expansion’ which ‘gave back no message’. The main concourse is ‘made from components rather than structures’; ‘the sensibility of impermanence and lack of faith’ is ‘in every plastic wall and bulkhead’. Warner is fascinated by the strange domesticity of ‘non-places’, and occasionally cranks up the alienation to describe their fixtures – literally, the light fixtures, room numbers and air-conditioning units – with a nouveau roman blankness: ‘Now a series of yellow-and-black signs on light boxes, illuminated from within and suspended at roof level from vertical, chrome bars, gave orientation; the young women obediently lifted their chins, to obey the information upon these signs.’ The most striking passages of the novel are in this clunky yet exoticising register, which inverts the technique of The Sopranos by making the warmth and fluency of the gang seem contained by the proprieties of adulthood. It brings with it a control-tower angle of vision that subtly distorts familiar language: Kylah’s rendition of ‘Away in a Manger’ changes the line after the novel’s title to ‘look down from above’.
The ground-level sphere of the characters is utterly dominated by Manda, who does triple duty as mascot, leader and scapegoat. The novel is largely structured around the provision of scenarios in which the other girls – and the reader – can revel in their irritation with Manda. Ignorant, obnoxious and deluded, she is presented as a dupe of consumerism (her catchphrase is ‘you can’t be yourself without your stuff’) and at times comes uncomfortably close to being a Highland Vicky Pollard. She not only crowds out the other characters (the other Port girls, Kylah and Chell, frankly make up the numbers), but is herself insistently reduced from the outsized brassiness of The Sopranos to a grotesque for whom it is hard to feel anything much. Here she is, having been sent to buy champagne during a bonding binge in the hotel:
Here her mobile phone went and Ava fumbled for it nervily to read the caller identity. ‘Brillient AMANDA’.
An aggressive voice was already there and Ava smiled.
‘Is this French champagne?’
Ava said, ‘What is it?’
‘Aye. Ball In Jay. They don’t have got nothing else he’s saying.’
‘Is it chilled?’
Ava heard Manda’s voice speak. ‘Got this stuff in coldness?’ Somehow, even down the phone, Ava perceived the assistant’s harassed state.
Whereas The Sopranos took little notice of bystanders, here, seemingly to point up the other girls’ maturity, we are constantly urged to feel mortified about Manda, whose own arrogance and bigotry make her impossible to pity. She swamps the novel without truly inhabiting it, and is nothing like the brazen but canny schoolgirl whose creed was ‘being smart is getting away wi fun and no getting caught.’
‘Under the flight paths of Heathrow,’ Ballard says, ‘everything is designed for the next five minutes.’ Spending four days in the airport savouring the next five minutes predictably begins to drag, so Warner inserts a lengthy interlude in which the girls, with time to kill after rebooking their Vegas flights for the following day, embark on an Olde Englishe Tourist Experience in the Kent countryside. This excursion foregrounds a deluxe strand of the novel which posits the girls’ airport limbo as an existential parable (all that system and contingency), signalled by an epigraph from The Castle, a few ‘casual’ references to philosophy coursework and clues such as ‘everything in these airport lands was seen through tinted or affected glass, which seemed to magnify, distance or distort the whole world.’ Clocking these hints (it’s hard not to: the tourist site is a castle), the reader encounters a difficulty: how to keep faith with the heart of the novel, the girls’ rudderless blather in a succession of theme pubs and fast-food outlets, while also taking seriously the clever set’s Beckett tattoos and cracks about ‘Lambert & Butler Yeats’. Are we travelling economy with the minimum-wage small-town girls, chatting about Big Brother and bikinis, or upgrading to the section with complimentary Kafka, where the conversation revolves around English architecture and the converging ‘languages of capitalism and pornography’? Warner has laid an ethical trap in daring his readers to take sides in this way. But he gives us no choice: we have to patronise Manda because of the things he makes her say. The book seems earnest in its attempts to rig up a tender, here-come-the-girls esprit de corps which will dissolve these petty divisions, but actually prescribes cocaine, porn and Ball Ginger as democratic levellers.
When the girls arrive at Hever Castle, they find another artificial and self-contained environment. They are disturbed by the ghost-crowded aura of the castle (a childhood home of Anne Boleyn) and rush towards the wide-open spaces of the estate. The bad writing of this section may be a piece of cleverness I don’t quite get. Here are the girls on the look-out for a good picnic spot:
they began to excitedly descend the slight brae towards the castle but then veered over to their right. As their vantage widened across the slope, they espied nest after nest of settled picnickers on open grassland, close to a lush and generous copse of trees. So they shifted course in this direction. The dark claret of a huge copper beech rattled in a burst of breeze beside them. A percussive prattle shivering up the tree, lifting the heavy reclination of the branches before they slowly dropped into stillness once again. Ahead, some green leaves reflected back the white sun from among all that generous abundance of sluggish chlorophyll. They could also now distinguish some purpose-built picnic tables and carved logs – but all seemed occupied.
The oppressive flatness of this prose, only underscored by its school prize-winning alliterative flutings, is unlike anything Warner has written before. Here is a comparable bit of connective landscaping from his fourth novel, The Man Who Walks:
above us to the north, a land, greened up with age, curves of saw-tooth lochs cutting east. Clawing black salt sea, lips lined with shining straps of sea kelp: disturbingly far inland. Tides rushing madly to and fro all the livelong day between rock shores beneath the mountains, their flanks still brown despite summer, as if built out of rusted steel plates from dead ships. Enough to make you dizzy, those lochs under knobs of pointless land, layered with humus and smeared bluntly westward; sick sweet knottles of whin bush and daisies, daisies so close meshed they look like a sleet fall in the grass.
The sun-drunk slopes of the castle gardens are, I think, meant to evoke the scorching beach in Camus’s Outsider; but the ‘huge, vengeful ennui’ which falls over this woozy meadow dissipates all dramatic tension and engulfs the reader as much as the characters. It gradually becomes clear that Warner is interested in this numbness – like the numbness of hotel corridors – but even understood as a kind of grief for life’s fading excitement (back at school, one of the girls says, ‘everything was still to happen to us, so’s it felt tons better’), this feels like stylistic self-maiming.
Airports may be immune to nostalgia, but sequels aren’t. Warner solved the nostalgia problem in his previous sequel (These Demented Lands) by drowning the eponymous heroine of Morvern Callar in its opening pages and shifting style and tone dramatically. The Stars in the Bright Sky, by contrast, resorts to (admittedly imaginative) gross-out scenes involving clogged toilets and teaspoons in order to revive favourite catchphrases from The Sopranos (‘Don’t scum me out!’). One subtext of the novel is the pressure the Port girls feel to memorialise themselves living life to the full, a sort of nostalgia before the fact. Much of the set-piece japery – Manda sprinting across the castle grounds carrying a full pint of Guinness, a policemen-stop-car-full-of-girls-in-their-underwear scene worthy of a Carry On film – seems curiously willed: these are synthetic ‘moments’. Manda, who in another catchphrase describes everything she does or is about to do as ‘classic’, is winningly guileless about manufacturing these best-bits: ‘I want … to go somewhere dead brilliant together and have the memories of it and be able to talk about it with everybody.’
When in The Castle K. is accused of being ‘the most ignorant person in the village’, he replies: ‘Of course, I’m ignorant, that’s an unshaken truth and a sad truth for me, but it gives me all the advantage of ignorance, which is greater daring.’ This could easily be Manda’s alibi, and it is a saving one; but this novel left me feeling wistful for the promise of Warner’s earlier work. Clearly, the author feels something of the same wistfulness for the old gang.