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Book Review – Morvern Callar by Alan Warner

Morvern Callar is Alan Warner’s first novel. The sequel is These Demented Lands. Of course, I read them in the wrong order, but never mind. Morvern Callar the character is a young woman living in the Scottish port town of Oban, and on the first page of the book she discovers her boyfriend’s corpse in their flat. He’s killed himself. This is where this novel diverges from traditional expectations, as instead of reporting her grisly find to the police, Morvern listens to some music, gets ready to go out, goes to a few pubs and clubs, and generally has a good time. Is she is shock and soon to come to her senses? Apparently not. And that is one of the great strengths of Morvern Callar the novel: it shatters audience expectations.

I like Warner’s writing on a number of levels, but there are some annoying aspects that I can’t seem to get over at the moment, so I’ll get them out of the way here and get on with the positive side of my review. Firstly, there’s no apostrophes in the book, which I find really grating. So ‘didn’t’ is ‘didnt’ and suchlike. Cormac McCarthy seems to do this too. Secondly, there’s no quotation marks for speech. None! Doubly annoying. This is an aspect of so-called ‘postmodern’ writing I can do without – the deliberate omission of functional punctuation. Quotations aren’t there to look cool, they’re there to do a job. This leads me to think of Warner as a bit on the self-consciously pretentious side. It could be argued that these omissions are due to the fact that Morvern herself has a low level of literacy, and given that she is the narrator, this might seem warranted. But I don’t think this is justified, as Warner explains that his character could never have written the words in this novel anyway. So the point is lost. If this was the point, then Warner would have had to have done away with punctuation altogether. That reminds me of some of the essays I have to read in my job, only 240 pages long. The horror.

I’m not done with the things that annoyed me about Morvern Callar. This next one is a biggie. The phrase ‘I used the goldish lighter on a Silk Cut’ (which is presumably a brand of cigarette) is repeated at least fifty and perhaps one hundred times throughout the book. Yes, there are subtle variations, but essentially this phrase crops up on something like one in every two pages. Had Warner written ‘I lit a cigarette’, the phrase would have been perfectly anonymous, but the author’s insistence on itemising trivial details and brands prevents him from doing this. Yes, yes, it’s all about the character and how she is caught up in a world of brands and material possessions. I get the point. But it annoyed me all the same. My fourth complaint is that the book is littered with specific artist/album/track information about what Morvern is listening to at any given time. I think it’s fair to say that such information takes up five percent of the book.

All right. That’s enough complaining. Despite these annoyances, I did enjoy reading Morvern Callar. What we have here is a modern existential drama that owes more than a little to the French (Sartre and Camus). Interestingly, even though this novel is told in the first person, there’s almost nothing in the way of interior monologue. Think about that for a minute. How can you have a novel in this mode without information about what the character is thinking at any given time? Warner proves that it can be done but, as a consequence, the narrative becomes detached and impersonal. Thus we read of Morvern’s amoral debauchery (and there is plenty of that) without any sense that she is repentent, remorseful, or otherwise sorry.

About half way through the narrative, Morvern chops her boyfriend’s body up and buries the pieces in the mountains. Worse, she steals the novel he’d completed before his death, and publishes it to great acclaim under her own name. Here my blood was boiling and I began to hate this character. With the advance from the publisher, Morvern goes on a drinking/drugging/partying spree in Spain, and when she returns, she discovers that her dead boyfriend has left her his inheritance as well. Cue more partying, a lot more. Finally the money is gone and Morvern is forced to return to Oban again. This is hedonism to the nth degree, and Warner offers no apology. Morvern doesn’t get her comeuppance and the police don’t discover her boyfriend’s body. And so the reader, depending on his/her perspective, might be left floundering.

There are a number of other positive elements I haven’t really discussed here. Warner writes very vividly of Oban and surrounds, and many passages are quite beautiful. Many of the shenanigans described herein are very amusingly told. There’s a lot of local slang that I enjoyed trying to translate. So ‘oxters’ must be underarms, to ‘boak’ is to vomit, to be ‘rampant’ is to be aroused and ‘Strathclyde’s Finest’ are the police.  In summary, Warner is a wily fox of a writer who sets traps for the unwitting reader. It would be easy to become outraged by Morvern Callar, and in a different time and place this is exactly the kind of book that would be denounced and even banned. But I will feel no outrage. I will get over it and read The Man Who Walks next.

  1. michael
    November 24, 2011 at 11:39 pm

    The phrase ‘I used the goldish lighter on a Silk Cut’ is used so many times because it was one of the presents under the christmas tree that Morvern opens upon finding her boyfriend dead, and is used so many times in the novel as a constant reminder of this.

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