It wasn’t until I read Sophy Dale that I realised literary criticism was worth doing. I had become very into a book called Morvern Callar, a magical book that I loved but did not quite understand. I slept badly as a student and I seem to recall going over the book as the sun brightened the glass in my halls room. I came across Sophy Dale’s critique of the novel some time later and was blown away by it. It answered my questions yet enhanced the mystery.
Morvern Callar is a twenty-one year old supermarket worker in a port town, probably Oban. The novel begins when her boyfriend commits suicide, leaving her with a large inheritance and instructions to get his novel published (‘I’ll settle for posthumous fame as long as I’m not lost in silence’). Morvern has the book published under her own name and with the money generated she escapes her roots.
Warner’s first novel had a distinct sheen of surreality. This was mainly due to the startling perceptiveness of his narrator. As Dale says: ‘Rather than feeling, like Gogol’s narrative voice, that there is nothing new under the sun, for Morvern everything is new, she sees things fresh… the effect is of a narrative voice at once denying emotion by refusing to discuss it, but suffused with wonder at the feeling of water on the skin or the play of light on the hills.’ For Morvern Callar it’s all magic, and not a page goes by without a double take. From her travels: ‘When people stopped on the promenade to lean in at the menu, the electric bulb in the glass case lit their faces, like a mask.’ And: ‘As I turned out of the orchard something bright caught my eye. It was a scarlet speck moving over the dry earth by the irrigation sluice; it was one of my broken nails being carried away by ants.’ One of the greatest skills for a writer is imaginative empathy, the ability to make your reader perceive through someone else’s eyes, and Warner captures not only perception but misperception: the mind’s assumptions resolving as the image becomes clear.
Despite this heightened awareness – the pill glitter things take and hold at the peak of the boom – Morvern Callar at least jumped the hoops of reasonable causality. For These Demented Lands Warner makes no such concessions. His second novel is set on a mysterious and remote island populated by madmen and mystics. Dale makes the point that Morvern’s port has almost no literary intellectuals, and yet a real creative oral culture in pub anecdote and local history. That is one point of continuity with the island. Even the names tell a story: Nam the Dam, the Argonaut, Devil’s Advocate, the Knifegrinder, Last of the Mohicans, High-Pheer-Eeon, Halley’s Comet, Superchicken…
Place is vital to Warner and his descriptions of landscape are as vivid and lush as in his debut, but there is a derangement and a sense of isolation to the evocations here. The Knifegrinder is against having a free party on the island: ‘It’s not a fit site to have a rave, man, cause you can pick up all the vibes when you’re raving, man’. Morvern herself declares that ‘This island is crazy. Its all like a dream.’ We are on the outer rim of everything.
From her first steps ashore Morvern sees that ‘a low roll of cloud had circled the island and seemed to hold the luminous dayness in its depths and bulges’. Later:
The whole island seemed to slip down through me like a disc, spread out round, saw otherside from up there, distant mountains lifting up as if explosions of steam, cloud pillars like spring blossom, the mountain range I was named after on the opposite side of the Sound that lay with a wet sun along in dazzling shimmers, up to where the water turned angry black – wide wide ocean that goes forever ‘cept maybe for a Pincher Martin rock jutted out the teeth of open bed. I stood looking out into that sea that surrounded us.
Like the old Micmac burial ground, this place is alive and tenebrous with spirits.
After many adventures Morvern has journeyed to the island accompanied by a small child. The story begins with her boat capsized by a car ferry. The last thing she sees above the surface is the ‘Psalm 23’ legend on the ferry’s stern. Psalm 23 is generally read at funerals – it has that line ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ – and Dale speculates that Morvern drowns here and that the rest of the book takes place in a strange netherworld. That’s certainly borne out in a later novel, The Man Who Walks. The sociopathic drifter of that book returns from years abroad and meets Morvern’s foster-dad: ‘the disgraced train driver, him never the same after his runaway foster-daughter drowned crossing the Sound on the little illegal ferry.’ The Macushla’s epitaph is characteristic: ‘her book didn’t help her float no better’.
Morvern circles her way towards the Drome Hotel and its proprietor, the diabolical John Brotherhood. The build up to this character is considerable as Morvern stops for fire and food with various itinerants and craftsmen, all of whom warn her against the Drome, and relate stories of its manager’s crimes. The book abounds with religious references and here John Brotherhood is Satan, a dark Prospero, a ghost story around the campfire. He’s a soldier with a sideline selling guns to the Boers and the Drome was apparently his retirement: ‘Young men’s dreams that pepper out: of setting up an island casino with Folies Bergère girls; punters choppered in.’ For Brotherhood it’s better to rule in hell than serve in heaven. In the words of the Devil’s Advocate, an investigator of saints:
He said that was when he understood the Devil had won the struggle one day no one noticed; we’re just under the impression the struggle goes on. For him that was the day he realised all men dream of the nuclear explosion when they make love and secretly crave the destruction of their own children out of curiosity. Love was a petty illusion and he made it his business to show love existed nowhere in the world.
Before getting to the Drome Morvern hears that Brotherhood once seduced two Siamese twins and turned them against each other with jealousy – ‘Rosa tried to hack Lynne apart from her with a carving knife; they bled to death during the airlift’. His hotel is run as a honeymoon resort where every detail is strategically arranged to ruin the marriages of his newlyweds; the pathway tiles are carefully designed to splash mud onto the legs of womens’ stockings, so that ‘those dots of mud will dry in the darkness, as each stocking lays concertina’d all night beside the bed in number 6.’ He lets Morvern stay for free because her understated yet powerful beauty further undermines these fresh unions. Further inversions follow; a crossdressing night, and a game where people sit outside in midge swarms and count the bites. For his luckless and bemused guests, it is ‘only slavish conformity to their desperate bid for happiness in wedlock that limited the infidelities and orgies that Brotherhood tried to orchestrate for his amusement.’
At the Drome the narrative switches to the Aircrash Investigator, who is looking into a small plane crash over the island. Obsessively he watches video footage of submerged aircraft, and wanders the island to locate pieces of wreckage, much of it scavenged by island oddballs. The mystery appears to be insoluble, and he comes off as a Sisyphus figure. This is underlined when Brotherhood reveals that the aviation authority has no interest in this crash and the Investigator’s claim to be working for them is lies. Furious at having to give up his propellor, the Argonaut lashes it to the Investigator’s back and sets him wandering around the island, Ancient Mariner-style. So what’s in it for him? Still, Camus reckoned that Sisyphus liked rolling the rock: ‘The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.’
There’s a suggestion that the Investigator is a Warner surrogate, and certainly he shares the author’s obsession with drowning. This is the Investigator, explaining his profession to Brotherhood:
Aircrash Investigation frees you from causality: we’re time travellers, obsessed with only a few seconds, minutes at most, of the past. All else becomes secondary and we live those moments again and again, until we’ve become part of the thing we investigate, we feel we effected that packet of time we weren’t present for…
I’ve come to think this is Warner’s purpose as well.
Some of his most vivid moments take place underwater. Morvern’s dad would take her to see the fishing boats but she is only interested in ‘the textures and sizes of their ruddy-green propellers that I could see hung in the bluey-green world below the curves of the hulls… It gave me scaredness lying in my bed, held there forever, punished above the cold Atlantic seabeds that were always rolling out below them.’ Sunk by the Psalm 23, she sees ‘a coral reef gone insane in the colours of these killing seas.’ To the Investigator, the aircraft in his underwater video looks ‘as all human creations sunk in water look… eerie, dreamlike and forlorn.’
A wall in the Drome displays a frieze of a sunken Armada fleet. One of the few permitted songs at the drag party is Dylan’s ‘The Man in the Long Black Coat’ (‘people don’t live or die, people just float/She went with the man in the long black coat’). The Macushla has a morbid fear of drowning and comes close at one point. In the first book Morvern watches the sea burial of a young woman. The body is floated out off the coast of Spain and set on fire, and gives Morvern a premonition of her own fate: ‘With the light filtering in you were already drowned and on the bottom of the deep sea with the living people above.’ She quotes from The Moviegoer (‘But it should be quite a sight, the going under of the evening land’) and references Pincher Martin, in which the protagonist is shipwrecked and washes up on an island, apparently alive – but as with Warner’s book there is the interpretation that Martin has drowned and is narrating a strange afterlife: ‘he went under into a singing world’.
This is a different Morvern from the debut. The narrator of Morvern Callar was preternaturally unspeaking (the name ‘Callar’ means ‘silence’) a functional literate, outside text and language, listening not to conversations but to the rhythms of those conversations. At the Drome, Morvern is confrontational, erudite and derisive, a match for Brotherhood’s dark wit, and hungry for battle and drama. She steals from the Devil’s Advocate – something the quietly religious, compassionate port-era Morvern would never have done. There is still the old sensuality and curiosity, but it is tempered with deep steel. ‘I’m deluded there’s a scrap of innocence and humility still left in me,’ she later writes, ‘but I’ve taken my young heart and polished it perfectly smooth.’ Nothing of her has faded, yet she has suffered a sea-change, and become something rich and strange.
Warner has a great fascination with work and respect for people who work with their hands. He’s also interested in the impact of man’s work on nature – the downed plane, the metal thing meeting the fluid ocean, is an ultimate signifier of this. The whole island illustrates the strange coexistence between humanity and the planet. The aristocratic Bultitude family (the Macushla impersonates a Bultitude at one point) create artificial hills and forest with ‘canister-shot of seeds, spores and stones’. Whelk-pickers, kleig lights on their helmets, walk into the sea in the dark ‘for their night’s strange harvest – they were shouting and stooping, a crazy swarm of tiny light bulbs, weaving, clustering and separating along the darkened beach.’ A spectacular rave takes place on New Year’s Eve; women arrive on the back of tractors and ‘peacocks stumbled around and folk were plucking their feathers – you kept seeing them in girls’ hair.’
Warner goes beyond the land-rape anthology of romantic writers and understands that our relationship with the earth is not just man’s exploitation versus nature’s wrath. It can be beneficial, even beautiful. TV aerials are rendered in ‘whispers and frames’, more like tree branches than metal antennae. There is a point where the Investigator visits the Outer Rim bar and sees a car parked outside: ‘Six or seven fat candles were placed on the car’s roof – the flame light made the vulgar car look strangely beautiful, as if it was about to be used in some religious procession.’ This is the ultimate Warner line. He sees the transcendent in the everyday, and makes the prosaic luminous. As Brotherhood says of the Bultitude’s cannon forests: ‘The hillsides streaked with gunpowder smoke but flowers and shrubs arising from that beautiful warfare.’
There are many classical allusions here (the book mentions maenads, female worshippers of Dionysus, quite literally ‘the raving ones’) and Morvern is referred to as Venus on the half shell. This is a more optimistic reading because Venus was born under the sea and rises from it. In discussions with the Aircrash Investigator Morvern portrays death in the tarot sense of new beginnings: ‘That choice to be dead, to be ghost, escape off the island somehow, start a new life’.
Warner is in love with found texts, signs, menus, diary excerpts from old typewriter ribbon. (The character of DJ Cormorant, Brotherhood’s house musician, is introduced with a diagram of his musical history. Warner comments that ‘rather than conventionally telling you about his past, I just showed a family tree of all the rock bands he’d been in, down the years, that had this sort of sadness about it, because all the bands were so obviously second rate!’) The book itself gives the impression of being lashed together from parts of several disparate manuscripts (‘First Text’, ‘Saturday the Fourteenth’) with editorial notes in bold where a poster or roadsign has been added. We don’t know what’s missing and this suits Warner fine, who hates books where everything is explained.
The novel ends with a long epistolary narrative, ‘The Letter’, in my view the best epilogue in fiction since Molly Bloom in Ulysses – in fact, better. In it Morvern writes to her father and describes her travels and adventures since escaping the island. The beauty and energy of it is staggering. Forgive my elliptical style,’ she writes, ‘I want you to die in the maximum possible confusion. Don’t dare even think of me on your death-bed.’