Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Alan Warner, The Sopranos (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux)
Washington Post Book World, 1999

What is it about Alan Warner and the lassies? Morvern Callar, his first novel, was written from the point-of-view of a 21 year old supermarket girl from a remote Scottish port, and followed her pleasure-principled journey through the Meditteranean rave scene. His latest, The Sopranos, goes five better, recounting 24 hours in the life of a gang of convent schoolgirls from the same sea town--a more eventful day-and-night than normal, for the girls are travelling to the Scottish capital to participate in a national choir contest. But instead of the honor of the school, Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, the main concern of these 17 year old miscreants is losing--to ensure that they won't have to stay in Edinburgh for the next round of the competition, but can return home in time to visit the local Mantrap nightclub, where sailors on shore leave are hotly anticipated. The trip to the big city does have its attractions, though, allowing the girls to indulge their passions for alcohol, clothes shopping, flirting--opportunities they seize with such lusty ferocity that catastrophe, albeit of a richly comic sort, is inevitable.

34 year old Warner dotes on these girls. There's something blatantly vicarious about the way he revels in their salty repartee and bawdy imaginations, something close to envy in the way he admires their cameraderie, quick wit, and impulsiveness. Fionnula the Cooler, the most charismatic and self-aware of the gang, expresses their philosophy: "any opportunity we get in life, you should just GO for it. Grab ah it' . Occassionally Warner pauses the narrative for full-on exaltation: "They've youth; they'll walk it out like a favorite pair trainers. It's a poem this youth ... We should get shoved aside cause they have it now, in glow of skin and liquid clarity of deep eye on coming June nights and cause it will go... After all what do we amount to but a load of old worn-out shoes?" .

The Sopranos reminds me of the key lyric from "Common People" by the British pop group Pulp, a song that deals with the middle class's voyeuristic fascination for working class vitality: "they burn so bright and you can only wonder why." With the Sopranos, you don't have to ponder too hard about the whys and wherefores of their incandescence. Sparks fly from the friction between these girls's boundless hormonal energy and the multiple obstacles they face--oppressions of age, class, gender, and region (they live in a provincial backwater of a country, Scotland, that is itself subordinated within the UK). Early in the book, the sopranos run into a former classmate, Michelle, who quit school pregnant after a one-night stand with a sailor. Warner writes poignantly about the awkwardness of the encounter, as the girls sense their old friend now dwells on the other side of a definite boundary: her life is effectively over, "she'd devoured the few opportunities for the wee bit sparkle that was ever going to come her way."

Rather less subtly, Warner positions the girls as renegades against the gerontocratic, eros-denying regime of the convent school: they are pure instinct and raw sensuality struggling to express itself through the only avenues left by the frigid, dessicated nuns--secretly shortening the length of their regulation tartan skirts, wearing colorful shoelaces. This theme of Catholic girls as volcanoes of pent-up libido (27-and-counting girls at the school get pregnant that year) is hackneyed, but it doesn't stop Warner from overplaying it. It's one of a handful of false notes in The Sopranos--the implausibly hip music taste of one the girls, Kylah (although it's nowhere near as suspiciously male-thirtysomething-Wire-reader-like as >Morvern Callar's), and a lesbian love sub-plot that reads as a distinctly masculine fantasy.

Quibbles aside, the overpowering feeling this reader gets from The Sopranos is verimisimilitude. Warner has the sharpest ear for dialogue this side of his compatriot Irvine Welsh. The way he captures the rhythms of girl-talk--the ping-pong rallies, swerves, nonsequiturs and explosions of mirth--suggest he's spent a lot of time eavesdropping in McDonalds or hanging around school playgrounds. As with Welsh's novels, The Sopranos is rich both in pungent slang ("beastie" = penis, "pissed mortal" = very drunk, " "dinnae scum us out" is roughly equivalent to the Valley girl's "gag me with a spoon") and in regional dialect ("greeting" means crying, "ceilidh" is a chat, "oxters" are armpits), which are almost always cleverly deployed so the reader can work out the meaning from the context. Like Morvern Callar, the whole book is written in vernacular Scottish, with phonetic spellings. The difference is that the first novel was all from Morvern's point of view, whereas The Sopranos has an omniscent narrator who speaks like the girls, only more self-consciously poetic. Although this creates vivid language--"there was a bit of silentness," neologisms like "gigglestifled"--it can also come across forced. The incessant spelling of "and" as "an" and "of" as "o" can be irritating, and Warner's impulse to simulate the non-grammatical shorthand of how real people really speak (dropping of definite articles and prepositions) makes some descriptive paragraphs feel stilted; the prose freezes up, the eye glides over them.

Ultimately, The Sopranos is neither social realism (it's not hum-drum or uneventful enough) nor magic realism (despite some heavy-handed symbolism involving an escaped Venuezalan parrot), but something in between. It's about the strangeness of ordinary people and the absurdist poetry of everyday life. In some ways, it's less a narrative than a concatenation of great anecdotes, the sort of embellished and exaggerated stories you might pick up in a pub and pass on, the tale growing in the telling: mad things such-and-such a person did when drunk, bizarre incidents that befell a friend-of-a-friend. In Morvern Callar, the heroine notes how the middle-class publishing people she meets in London never tell stories, they discuss ideas. Like the other inhabitants of their town, the sopranos love telling tales; you sense that the mischief and mayhem they get up to in this action-packed, alcohol-soaked 24 hours is entering their collective mythology even as it happens. Compared with the oddly bleak hedonism of Morvern Callar, The Sopranos is remarkably upbeat. Despite the ever present sense of youth's transience and the looming shadow of the socio-economic odds stacked against the girls, the book ends on a high note. Unlike Trainspotting, it won't need to have its ambivalences ironed out to be transformed into the feel-good youth movie it's clearly destined to be.


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