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.
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: