Although he has enjoyed tremendous critical praise throughout his career, Alan Warner has always had fun obscuring his talent. He clearly enjoys challenging himself, mainly through his habit of adopting authorial voices seemingly far from his own (such as the eponymous female narrator of Morvern Callar), but also through, in most of his novels, a freewheeling narrative structure that makes it seem like he's making it up as he goes along. His last novel, The Man Who Walks, was undeniably enjoyable, but occasionally felt as if he was indulging his habit of creating bizarre set-pieces to the detriment of the whole. I will never be able to forget the inexplicable scene in The Man Who Walks in which a character encourages a woman to urinate in a pan, boils an egg in the urine, buries the egg in an ant-hill while they have sex and then urinates all over her.
While his fourth novel, The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven, appears to have a similarly loose structure, and a character who enjoys detailing his past sexual appearances, the prose is far stronger than anything he has written previously, and there is enormous passion behind the narrative which makes this by far his best book. The authorial ventriloquism is even more impressive than that in Morvern Callar as Warner faultlessly captures the voice of a 40-year-old Spanish wannabe roué who at one time considered himself literary but has since abandoned all his books in an intellectual progression that has already seen him give up on all other kinds of culture.
On one level, this book works as a parody of the notion that "everyone has a book in them". Although the novel is given a certain degree of dramatic structure by Manolo Follana's discovery that he has Aids (referred to throughout as "the condition") and his curiosity about which of his lovers might have given it to him, it is incredibly discursive, full of all the seemingly unnecessary detail that marks out an amateur author. Follana presents chapters with such gloriously mundane titles as "A Supplemental Chapter. Its Title: The Reserve Water Tank" and "A Tribute to My Accountant, Sagrana" which Warner miraculously manages to keep interesting. His narrator is an incredible egotist, convinced that everything about his life is fascinating. But at the same time Warner displays enormous artistry in craftily constructing the story so that the string of seemingly random recollections builds up a brilliant portrayal not just of his narrator but of the human condition.
It's impossible to explain my only reservation about this novel without giving away the ending, and while many readers will guess this conclusion ahead of time, it doesn't really destroy what's gone before. However, it does deliberately change the emphasis, refocusing attention on the character to whom Follana describes much of his life-story, Ahmed Omar, who also suffers from "the condition". It is the last sleight of hand in a novel full of such devices, and doesn't detract from the quality of Warner's achievement, instead questioning the importance of narrative suspense and what the reader should expect from a novel. The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven is a significant breakthrough for Warner, and a pleasing example of how early praise can encourage an author to become more daring rather than repeating past successes.