Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Morvern Callar by Alan Warner

Last review in our Scottish Literature Week

Apparently, you aren’t supposed to open a novel (or a review?) with a dead body. It’s a cliché, it strains for an effect it rarely achieves and it’s a try-too-hard hook even the least sophisticated reader will struggle to swallow whole. The opening of Alan Warner’s début novel, Morvern Callar breaks this rule and begins with the grisly tableaux of a boyfriend dead on a kitchen floor. He’s not just dead either – he’s cut his throat, slashed a wrist with such enthusiasm that his hand is hanging off and he’s lying in a pool of half-congealed blood lit only by the twinkling lights of a Christmas tree.

That isn’t the creepy part though. The creepy part is what Morvern, his girlfriend and the narrator of this short novel, does next. ‘There was fright’ she says, ‘but I’d day-dreamed how I’d be.’ The wording is precise. There was fright – she doesn’t tell us she feels it, she tells us it exists, as if fear was an object the other side of the room. And she’d day-dreamed how she’d be – she’d imagined her reaction – she’d watched herself responding to this in her mind. And this character never stops watching herself. She’s like a writer.

You’d expect Morvern to be a difficult character to like: her boyfriend kills himself and she opens her Christmas presents and goes to work. She lets his body rot, first where it lies on the kitchen floor, and then in the attic of their house. When summer hits and the body becomes problematic, she buries him. I’ve said she’s like a writer in her numb observation of everything including herself, but she isn’t a writer. She works in a supermarket. All the same, she steals her boyfriend’s novel, publishes it under her own name, goes on a 18 – 30s holiday with the proceeds and returns home only to claim his inheritance and spend it on a four-year jaunt round the Mediterranean. Her emotionally anaesthetised voice describes her clothes, make-up and music with more feeling than the death of her long term boyfriend. And yes – she is difficult to like.

But Warner, I think, isn’t asking us to like her – he is asking us to watch her, and watch ourselves watching her. Liking is irrelevant here – like fear, it’s an object on the other side of the room. The focus is external and for a first person narration there is hardly any introspection. The novel reads as a deliberately wooden shopping list of stage directions. Her voice is monotone – she describes opening letters, packing suitcases and emptying her locker at work in the same deadpan, apathetic language as the set-piece of hacking her decomposing boyfriend up in the bath. She tells us the exact shade she paints her toe-nails, but not her boyfriend’s name.

At times this style is dense, repetitive, and exhausting, especially during the camping scene where Morvern takes the body, sawn into bits and sealed into bags, into the countryside to bury. In a review in the New York Times Jennifer Kornreich says: ‘Unfortunately, these appalling but convincing details never add up to anything in particular.’

Unlike Kornreich, for me these details do add up to something. Not an epiphany, but an experience. The deadening, cumulative effect of the language provokes the same kind of numb boredom in me as Morvern seems to experience (I realise ‘numb boredom’ is hardly conventional praise, but I mean it that way). We are able to look at Morvern with the same kind of cool detachment as she looks at herself. For some readers this is a fault and I doubt the style would have sustained my interest throughout a longer novel but in a short piece it’s a powerful dose of what it might be like to be Morvern – someone who experiences something extraordinary and watches herself doing something worse.

The book was made into a film in 2002 starring Samantha Morton. I’m guessing it’s got a great soundtrack and goes for the gore, although I haven’t seen it. Morvern shows up again in Alan Warner’s second novel: These Demented Lands (1997) – probably something I’ll be reading soon.

Morvern Callar by Alan Warner. Vintage, 1995. ISBN: 0099586118

The Rest of Scottish Literature Week:

Reviews
Ron Butlin’s “Belonging”
Maggie Haggith’s “The Last Bear”
J.A. Henderson’s “Crash”
Interview: Doug Johnstone, author of “Tombstoning” and “The Ossians”

8 comments on “Morvern Callar by Alan Warner

  1. Luisa
    April 20, 2008

    Fantastic review. The film is good – I thought Samantha Morton was excellent in it.

  2. Pingback: Interview with Doug Johnstone « Vulpes Libris

  3. Jackie
    April 20, 2008

    Despite this being a novel I am too scared to read, you do make it sound intriguing. Especially your description of the character and her “numb boredom”, I can see how her actions would make for a fascinating read, not the body part, but the publishing etc. I think it’s testimony to your reviewing skills that make me wish I wasn’t to chicken to read it.

  4. rosyb
    April 20, 2008

    Do you see it as a portrait of a strange individual, or a particular mindset or way of thinking?

    Wondering how you think it relates to what Doug J was saying about small town literature. Does the setting have a big impact on this book?

  5. Lisa
    April 21, 2008

    Absolutely fascinating review and book. I think I’d go for it if I was in the right mood.

    “this style is dense, repetitive, and exhausting, especially during the camping scene where Morvern takes the body, sawn into bits and sealed into bags, into the countryside to bury.”

    Sounds gruesome, and yet there was a sense of numb boredom? Wouldn’t have expected that.

    This made me laugh, mind you:

    “All the same, she steals her boyfriend’s novel, publishes it under her own name…”

    I suppose “she steals her boyfriend’s novel, gets rejected by fifty-three literary agents, rewrites it three different ways, finally gets an agent who can’t sell it, and two years later self-publishes it on Lulu” wouldn’t have the same dramatic impact. In fact, if she did that, I’d see it as proof of her love for her boyfriend ;)

  6. Jenn
    April 21, 2008

    Luisa: Thanks for letting me know – I always get disappointed when I watch films that are based on novels I have really enjoyed, but I might try this one if you can vouch for it.

    Rosy: I thought Morven was very much an individual and not just a specimen of an idea that Warner wanted to write about, or a made-up example of some social phenomenon he wanted to criticise/glorify/document. But other reviewers have different, and criticised his novel for being one more ode to the rave generation – (I don’t know what that means – I am too young (13 when this book came out) so maybe that is why it doesn’t seem like that to me.

    And as for setting – yes, it is a very Scottish book. It’s supposed to be set in Oban, and the remoteness is important – both in the dark and freezing winter, and in the time Morven spends camping in a wildnerness that is only a bike-ride away from her foster father’s house. The novel has been lumped in with Laura Hird and Irvine Welsh – because of it’s Scottish setting and characters, among other things, but I think Hird and Welsh generally deal with much more urban and inner city environments – Morven’s home is very different to that.

    Jackie – Thank you for your compliments. I suppose I’m attracted to dark and gory books, but the bloody parts of this were so remote and stylised I don’t think you’d find them scary at all. If you ever pluck up the courage, I’d be interested to know what you think.

    Lisa: That part made me laugh too. It must have been some novel. She even gets the editors to take her out clubbing in London and get her stoned. And lend her twenty quid for pizza afterwards. I wish those editors would take a read of my book…

  7. Jane
    April 26, 2008

    I once went on a Club 18-30 holiday. I think I’ll get the snaps out to check whose in the background. After I’ve read the novel. I’m intrigued!

  8. Meghan
    October 23, 2008

    Im doing this book for an essay , can anyone tell me the major theme of this book? thanks xxx

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This entry was posted on April 20, 2008 by in Fiction: literary.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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