Thursday, June 19, 2014

Alan Warner's "Morvern Callar": Book Review

This 1995 debut novel should outlast the Spanish rave scene as I imagine it has the Walkman that Morvern Callar uses as the soundtrack of her life. The publisher's blurb sums up the gist of what Alan Warner takes on as a difficult challenge, matching the novel's spare form, relating her story in a nearly affectless tone in many parts to its content, the aftermath of His (unnamed) suicide and her decision to do away with that evidence on her kitchen floor--in the way of her warming pizza in the oven, after all.

Warner cuts to the essentials, without calling attention to his stark, numb style, to get us into Morvern's intensely limited perspective. It's not that she is mentally damaged, perhaps, as a Faulkner or Beckett protagonist may be, but she bears the impact of whatever has warped her to keep to such a limited routine. Gradually (some may overlook this), as she enters the natural realm nearby, and then on her two journeys to Spain, she seeks more descriptions to get across these new sensations, taken from the sea, snow, and sky.

Such phrases as wiping off blood with Christmas wrapping early on capture the mood. If that appeals, read on. I was often reminded of another novel from this time and place (neither that or this film version I've seen so far), Michel Faber's "Under the Skin." I admired that story's chilling, yet matter-of-fact portrayal of another cool female on the prowl in the same way I did Morvern. It's challenging for a male writer to enter the head of a female, and capture what this male reviewer imagines as true, and for Warner, to pare down the words used and images sustained, without caricature or stereotype. Repetition reigns, the same  "goldish" lighter, the same Silk Cuts smoked, the same slang, Scottish and speckled slightly with whatever this Strathclyde-set tale has kept from the dying Gaelic, as the neighbors in her doughty, drafty port town carry, each one, not their own name but an odd nickname.

The circular nature of the plot, twice off to Spain, twice back to Scotland, and the disjointed nature of the London visit and other events, fit Morvern's mental state, altered chemically. Parts of this seem to have originated as short stories, and the Spanish YouthMed icebreaker scene stands out for its black humor and cruel invention. A counterpart for this alienated commodification of flesh and cash, again from the same time period, would be the satirical depiction of the tourism industry in Michel Houllebecq's "Platform." But parts seem from stories stitched into longer portions, and one feels a bit of this fabrication. The drivers' test conclusion seems rather contrived, and the vague parts nearer the end, as in the London section, the retirement rant earlier of--and the news later given--Red Hanna, while true to Morvern's condition, don't move the story forward as much. For a short novel, parts felt elongated, and many incidents make you wonder why they were included. Not that they detract from the main story, but it's a digressive story and one you keep wondering about, with little fact to go on.

That may be Warner's intention. He creates a believable, perplexing inner voice for the narrator, and by keeping you trapped within her lack of affect, you are forced to stick with her no matter what. The final scene makes you wonder if a sequel awaits. It's artistic, but it's stripped down, and it stings you.
(Amazon US 5-20-14)

No comments: