Multitudes of people!Walking up the hills!

THESE DEMENTED LANDS by Alan Warner Cape pounds 15.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Alan Warner's first novel, Morvern Callar (1995) was, as the blurb says, "a critical triumph". It was compared to L'Etranger and The Great Gatsby. The author himself - a Scottish lad from Argyll in the West Highlands, born in 1964 - was held to be "defining the 1990s" in the way that Jay McInerney had "defined the 1980s" before. You'll be expecting me to say that all of this was hypey nonsense, but here's a surprise for you: I believe it, every word. Apart from the bit about Jay McInerney. I never did see what that guy was meant to be about.

You don't get books like Morvern Callar often: first sightings of new sorts of people in literature, familiar enough from the streets perhaps, but not before seen on the page. And you don't often get this sort of social sharpness in a book so elegantly put together, it feels like you have the wind in your back as you read. Readers especially love a narrator they can have a romance with, a Holden Caulfield or a Lorelei Lee. Morvern was wide-eyed and gorgeous, a good-looking working-class girl who liked her raving, yet was also, simultaneously and completely unaffectedly, "an angel fallen to this earth". Her language, with its "offofs" and its "travelling in countries", was accurately Scottish, accurately chemical- generation 1990s, and profoundly poetic as well.

At the end of Morvern Callar, Warner left us with his heroine stumbling back exhausted to her old stamping-grounds from Ibiza, "the child of the raves" in her tum. His second novel sort of picks up where the last novel finished, with Morvern rising semi-miraculously from the sea. The world she is returned to, however, is out of joint with the tight-knit, hard- bitten village in the Scottish Highlands she once left. It's an island, ruled by a hotel called The Drome, itself ruled by a former arms dealer called Brotherhood. An Aircrash Investigator, meanwhile, is gathering wreckage, for reasons best known to himself. His name seems to be "Walnut or Warmer, though ... when I pressed him he says his name was Houlihan". Warner, you see, does like to do that cherchez-the-author thing.

Morvern meets others as she labours across the island. Travellers and drifters, mostly, with names like present-day DJs - Cormorant, Devil's Advocate, Knifegrinder - which might also be the names of emblematic figures from romance. The ambiguity is of course intentional. "Multitudes of people! Walking up the hills!" as an epigraph from Black Grape has it: is it a rave, a war, a refugee movement? Is it the 1990s, the 1700s, the Dark Ages, as seen by Welsh, or Stevenson, or Tolkien? When you're surrounded by the hills of Scotland, you are of course standing in one of the most economically depressed regions of Europe. And yet, the wildly romantic intimations of ancient time you feel as you stand there are very much part of that reality as well.

Warner's second novel is a classic like his first one. One of the most exciting things about Morvern Callar was the way you could feel all sorts of other stories folded up very small inside it - more obvious allegories, more studenty experiments, more standard-issue Scottish-ruralist tales. Well, in These Demented Lands, a fair bit of this early draft-work remains unfolded, bound straight into the spine of the book. The various male figures in particular repeat each other awkwardly. One or two of them should have been cut and stuck on to the side of someone else.

And disappointingly, Morvern's voice starts breaking its old decorum, without ever really finding a newer one to fit. "I had a conversation about post-modernism!" she exclaims toward the end of the novel, in a strange, obscurely vengeful, Letter To Her Father. "I actually said the ridiculous word ..." It's not so much the p-word that's the problem; it's the theatricality of the gesture. Oor Morvy would never ponce around like that. It's a boys' pose, of course; it's a boy's letter, really, written by "Walnut, or Warmer", or whatever his name might be. It makes for an interestingly minatory stretch of writing, but one which, so unmediated, does not belong in the place it has been put.

And yet, These Demented Lands is none the less worth reading. The prose is glorious, like poems. The images are powerful, and the artistic ambition is genuinely awe-inspiring, although it doesn't quite come off. Read Morvern Callar first if you haven't already done so, and you'll understand why a first novel like that one would be so difficult to follow. Read These Demented Lands second, and you'll see how much more Warner has waiting up his sleeve. No one, let us face it, will care about Warner's second novel come the next millennium, when this astonishing writer has fully come into his own: which leaves Warner now with ahead of him only - only! - the problem of finding his developing vision a new and properly fitting shape.