Book review / Not raving, but drowning

These Demented Lands by Alan Warner, Cape, pounds 15.99

One of the many heavily charged themes in Alan Warner's apocalyptic second novel concerns an attempt to piece scattered clues into a coherent pattern. A reading of the novel also involves some psychic sleuthing. Warner's extraordinary Morvern Callar (1995) was one of the best fictional debuts in years. A fierce communique from the edges of a country, a generation, a decade, it was narrated by the eponymous heroine, who escapes a dead- end port in Argyll (Warner's home territory) for the European rave scene. Finally, she returns to Scotland, pregnant with "the child of the raves".

From the dust-jacket onwards, there are strong hints that These Demented Lands is the sequel. But Warner has been unable to resuscitate the glorious Morvern, the inamorata of many fanatical readers. Her unforgettable voice - cool, deadpan, incisive - has gone. This woman is very different.

Can you imagine Morvern referring to William Golding and Walker Percy? She does here. Can you see her hesitating between "Lynniata, or Serenella Cerano Berniez" as an alias? Or writing in a long, hate-filled letter to her foster-father: "But listen, Daddy ... I had a conversation about post-modernism! ... I actually said the ridiculous word". That "ridiculous" is a last-minute addition, absent from the proof and appearing only in the finished copy in a belated attempt to make it sound more Morvern-ish.

In These Demented Lands, Morvern emerges damply, dramatically from the sea after a ferry wreck. She begins a pilgrimage on a Scottish island, heading for The Drome - a ludicrous themed honeymoon hotel run by the notorious John Brotherhood, ex-arms dealer and lubricious sadist. He is identified (in a quotation from Conrad) with the devil. Morvern's pilgrimage is a quest for love. Not any old bourgeois, common-as-muck love, as exemplified by the hapless, much-despised guests at The Drome, but a search for the sublime, transcendent love of a man she calls a "Jesus ... I found him later, in the hotel".

In Morvern Callar, Warner's prose demonstrated two strong tendencies, but he held them firmly in check. Here, both urges have swooped completely out of control. The first is his yen to give characters very significant, capitalised nicknames. Morvern encounters the Argonaut, the Knifegrinder, the Devil's Advocate, the Aircrash Investigator (her true love) aka the Man From the Department Of Transport aka the Failed Screenwriter aka Walnut or Warmer or Houlihan, also referred to as the One Who Walked the Skylines of Dusk with Debris Held Aloft Above His Head. Phew. There are also the Most Baldy, Superchicken and Halley's Comet.

Warner's other main impulse is towards what he once called "symbolism". Morvern Callar contained a few brief, subtle references to history and myth but in this book the symbolic urge has become an omnipresent addiction. There are endless allegorical resonances - with the Bible, with literature, with myth. The landscape is heavily mythopoeiac; place names include the Outer Rim and the Inaccessible Point. Boats are called "Psalm 23" or "The Maenad". There is a neo-Odyssey and a faux-Cruxifixion.

Worst of all, on the last night of this century, while the DJ is holding his Millennial Rave and the tribes have gathered and the flames rise, there is a Nativity. Morvern produces a girl in the rear of a Volvo hatchback filled with hay.

She is attended by the Argonaut, the Advocate and the Aircrash Investigator, described as "the three wise kings". After "the Messiah" has arrived there is "the flight into Egypt" as Morvern, her true love and the child of the century leave - in an old coffin. This amount of apocalypso dancing is really too much to take.

Whether any irony is intended remains unclear. Morvern's pregnancy is the longest in literature. She becomes pregnant in the rave scene of the early Nineties and pops at the millennium. Yes, we know an author can have a 100-year gestation if he wants. We know that Warner may just be emphasising the (yawn) artificiality of the fictional process; Morvern's character need not demonstrate continuity. But the feeling that emerges from the book is that he wanted to re-animate Morvern, and he wanted the child of the Ecstasy generation to be born at the millennium.

The themes of the novel are wildly ambitious and they just do not cohere. It reads more like an early draft than a finished manuscript - surely Warner's publishers could have protected him by not hustling this into print before it was ready? Finance, of necessity, dominates the literary publisher but, too often, talented writers seem pressured to produce when it would have been wiser to wait (as in the case of Irvine Welsh's Ecstasy or Jenefer Shute's Sex Crimes). It is a long time since Maxwell Perkins was able to nurse Scott Fitzgerald's faulty submissions to near-perfection.

The good news is that Warner is still a vastly gifted writer. There are inumerable passages of incandescent beauty. His wit and invention remain sharp - we meet a girl with an electric kettle for a hand-bag, a sea burial with the corpse clutching his beloved, still-ringing mobile phone, a coffin used to serve spaghetti vongole. The great moments and beautiful writing are a fantastic augury for a young author. But no one produces consecutive classics.

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?