Alan Warner is a great writer who has always managed to make his existential fictional characters human-scale rather than philosophical ciphers. He is also a romantic writer who believes that every story is a "form of seduction". Seduction is the game of the central character in Warner's fifth novel.
Manolo Follana, an affluent 40-year-old Spanish roué, is told by his doctor that he has "the disease that will not speak its name". Manolo is apparently HIV positive. This naturally sets him thinking about his life; his childhood, his country, (a strangely disembodied contemporary Spain), his two marriages and various sexual encounters with a number of young women.
"We never tell stories to those we do not wish something from," Manolo declares in the tone of a low-rent Baudrillard. In exchange for listening to his stories, Manolo invites a homeless illegal immigrant to share his luxury apartment. I think we are supposed to believe there is something mythic and wise about the "moor" Ahmed Omar, but he rarely talks back - until the predictable twist at the end of the book. Some of Manolo's stories are worth a few nights living off the streets: the macabre farce of his father's death, the two sexy Vietnamese girls who teach him to swim when he is a shy teenager, a Romanian sex-bomb artist he memorably visits in her decaying Stalinist apartment.
Warner is at his best when Manolo recalls seducing two female hairdressers on a rocky beach at night and loses his "butter gold" wedding ring in their blond pubic hair. Here, as in Morvern Callar , his female characters have a brittle fragility, a lovely slow-motion realisation that they are capable of transgressions that can rearrange the fibre of who they thought they were. Strangely, despite the cast of exotic characters that make up Manolo's flawed life, it is the hairdressers and melancholy accountant Sagrana that seem most connected to the modern Spain Warner is trying to depict.
It's hard not to mention J G Ballard's Cocaine Nights here, set as it is in a fictional Spanish resort, Estrella de Mar. No matter how highly imagined Ballard's worlds are, he establishes (like the most brilliant surreal paintings) a firm reality, a way of seeing, a bias and logic in which landscape is a reflection of the psychopathology of his characters and vice versa.
Warner attempts this too, as in Manolo's description of making love to his first wife while covered in concrete dust. Yet the neighbourhoods in the Spanish seaside town Manolo apparently loves do not feel fully imagined. Mention is made of "our country", or "my language", but we are left with an ambivalent sense of place - despite the all-too familiar "rigid cuboids", "new geometries" and "satellite dishes pointed at the moon".
It is as if the metaphor for something bold and brilliant has escaped the writer's grasp. The fact that Manolo is infectious is soon forgotten amid the colourful set pieces and self-regarding storytelling. If there is a wilder, less sentimental novel lurking inside this one, then in it Warner is admirably trying to make poetic and conceptual sense of human relationships in an increasingly disembodied world.