Books: Flower of Scotland
His girls may specialise in Highland flings, but there's more to Alan Warner than whisky and Wonderbras. Robert Crawford listens to a wildly talented voice
Saturday 06 June 1998
At 33, Warner the novelist has now marked out some distinctive pastures of his own. Both Morvern Callar (filmed by the BBC) and its sequel, These Demented Lands, featured the small-town female escapee Morvern. Lyrically and disturbingly, the novels presented a Highland terrain, sex, violence, menace, and rave culture. Warner, who was encouraged in Oban by the poet and novelist Iain Crichton Smith, has - like his early mentor - a surreally- tinged imagination. His subject-matter and his gift for exploiting an audience have led to comparisons with Irvine Welsh. The author of Trainspotting hailed Morvern as a "sassy party chick" and is acknowledged in Warner's third novel, The Sopranos (Cape, pounds 9.99). Warner, Welsh and their fellow Scot Duncan McLean share the same publisher and the same editor, Robin Robertson.
So Warner is certainly One of the Lads of the new Scottish fiction, but he is also purposefully his own man. One of the dedicatees of These Demented Lands was Juan Carlos Onetti, the unflinching Uruguayan novelist who created his own fictional terrain of Santa Maria, peopled it with strong, though morally ambiguous characters, and chronicled its detailed history. The Uruguayan critic Gustave San Roman has already christened the Spanish- speaking Warner as "the Scottish Onetti".
English-language audiences might more readily intuit that one of Warner's literary heroes is William Faulkner. As that novelist of the southern States created and peopled his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, so Warner has firmly established himself as the chronicler of the mostly working- class girls of The Port: a location based on Oban.
If all this sounds pretentious, the rip-roaring energy and horror-hilarity of The Sopranos show that Warner can combine a passion for literary style with go-anywhere demotic humour. His new novel busses the choir of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour School for Girls from The Port to The Capital for a singing competition. Mad for sex, drink (but not drugs), and shoplifting, Fionnula, Kylah, Orla, Chell and pals wreak havoc in Edinburgh before ensuring that the choir's performance in the competition is so disastrous that they get bussed home in time to storm the menfolk of the local disco.
Their teachers, Sister Condron (aka - you guessed it) and the others, are reduced to uncomprehending ruin. The Sopranos, fantasising about G- strings and submarines full of semen and knowing that ahead lies a small- town life, burn with an insatiable ardour. One is dying, many are trapped, but all exude an appalling and hypnotic energy.
In These Demented Lands, Warner had flares going off; in The Sopranos, his schoolgirls light a box of fireworks indoors. Dream-driven energy entrances him, but his plotting also involves carefully planned geometry. There are farce-like vectors as the choirgirls enter and exit police stations and emergency wards. Neither the Catholic Church nor the institutions of the Capital seem able to tame, shame or contain them. They are at once innocent and longingly corrupt, desperate for a determined spree before life boxes them in. They want to be (as Muriel Spark put it in another Edinburgh schoolgirl novel) "famous for sex".
Warner gleefully inhabits the minds of his teenage lassies, and fetishistically details their provocative clothing. Philip Larkin might have kept this book in his desk drawer; sometimes, indeed, The Sopranos is like St Trinians with condoms and male nudity. Yet if this hints at a note of market-exploitation (the movie rights have already been sold), it should also be said that the remarkable alertness and confidence of the writing mean that there's a lot more going on here than a laddish and lassish preoccupation with Wonderbras and very short skirts.
Lyrical attentiveness to physical detail marks out Warner's writing. So, travelling home from the Capital, teenage Orla "put a cheek against cold glass of the window; when she restlessly took her face away, a crescent of condensation stayed then shrunk on its own dimensions, leaving only the black night and its frightening lands". Such moments of prose-poetry illumine the novel and give it a tenderness that complicates the girls' crude talk. Very occasionally there's an Under Milk Wood quality to Warner's poetic prose, but usually it's a combination of muck and brio that is all his own. The scatological and the delicate are fused in a tale that confirms Warner's status as the Rimbaud of Argyll.
As often in post-James Kelman Scottish fiction, the narrator's voice can sound at times like the characters' speech. But the poetry of Warner's text goes hand in hand with an unKelmanly hedonistic impulse. Morvern Callar astounded not least because of its male-authored, thrill-seeking, female narrator. Much of the time in The Sopranos, Warner reserves for his genderless third-person voice a sensibility and reach denied to most of his characters, though Kylah is allowed lyrical perceptions of her own. The style is an art-speech suggesting vernacular Scots English as the narrative voice slips into direct talk: "The nurse came out looked both ways an nodded at Fionnula who jamp up, Is she okay?" The English language is rule-breakingly adjusted to the environment. Miss Jean Brodie would hardly approve.
Vitality and sheer writerly surprise are the hallmarks on every page. The only Catholic overseer who is presented with any sympathy is the aspiring novelist, Father Ardlui, desperate for genuine or fake miracles. His "reductive style and dangerous vision" make him at times something of a stand-in for the author. Warner, too, is keen to find or create miracles, though his are more fleshly ones. The penultimate chapter, "Ice and the Pearl", includes the story of how Kay, who has to come to terms with her sexuality (not to mention the vomit in her schoolbag), recalls how her doctor once found a pearl embedded in her ear - "a mystery where it came from". Odd, off-balance moments like that characterise this novel's reeling poetry.
The Sopranos is calculatingly scandalous, wickedly funny, and shot through with a visionary vein. It takes the stereotype of the wild Highland barbarian, re-genders it, teens it, and sets it loose. Warner's girls are unforgettable. His song will not go away.
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