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
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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