There comes a time in the best writers’ careers where their body of work makes the argument for their worth more eloquently than any critic could manage. Alan Warner reached that point some time ago. His last book, The Deadman’s Pedal, was arguably his best so far; but every one of his novels, from unforgettable debut Morvern Callar to the latest, Their Lips Talk of Mischief, are all essential reads for anyone interested in contemporary literature.
Warner’s work can be complex, serious and literary but there are few writers who can marry this to the irreverent, ribald, and laugh out loud funny as he can. Anyone who has read 1998’s The Sopranos or the 2010 follow up The Stars In The Bright Sky will be familiar with the best of both of these worlds, but never have all aspects of Warner’s writing come together as successfully as they do in Their Lips Talk of Mischief.
Set in London in 1984, the book follows two aspiring writers who have dreams of fame and fortune at a time when such an idea was not as far-fetched as it is today. Unfortunately, (or not, depending on your view of life), drink, sex, shelter and food take priority over work, in that order. We meet charismatic Welshman, Llewellyn Smith, and naive Scot, Douglas Cunningham, in a London A&E department where they are thrown together. These are our literary heroes, and theirs is a life which will be familiar to many as they make big plans without actually putting them into any meaningful action. Both men seem sincere in their wish to make a living by writing, but end up spending far more time in their local, ‘The Five or Six Bells’, talking about conquering the world rather than actually making any moves to do so. Imagine Withnail & I if the central characters were writers instead of actors, and you have some idea of the two and their world view.
But that is only the structure of the novel. The really interesting stuff is what Warner does with this premise. He is expert at portraying the complexity of individuals and what they are capable of, both good and bad. There are few writers who understand what makes us human as he does; the struggle between differing desires, tempered by flashes of morality and reason, which are all causal forces on how we act. The selfish vs the generous, the desires of the individual vs the needs of the group, the subjective vs the objective – all of these are elements of Warner’s characters as they realise that dreams and achievements mean little unless they are shared with, and acknowledged by, others. From Morvern Callar to Llewellyn Smith, this dialectic is to be found in all of Warner’s protagonists. It’s not enough to do, you have to be noticed doing it, or, in this case, not doing it. Perception is often more important that reality.
The story is narrated by Cunningham, and what unfolds is a friendship between himself and the enigmatic Llewellyn which is defined by admiration and competition, and their relationship to the celestial Aoife. She is the artists’ muse to both men, and their love triangle is at times farcical, at others incredibly touching, as selfish behaviour gives way to real emotion and deep rooted bonds form between all three. Llewellyn and Cunningham both idolise Aoife, but they all have love for each other, and see in the others traits to admire, and traits to despise, but which are missing in themselves. They are three parts of an unholy whole.
The book is also an ode to the debatable joys of wasted talent and lost years. The existential crisis which Llewellyn and Cunningham share is only manageable through self delusion and languor, and the desire to get drunk overcomes the desire to write, to actually act, as the fear of failure or, worse, mediocrity is too appalling to consider. Best to believe you are geniuses in your own liquid lunchtime than be proved to be inadequate or untalented in reality. Llewellyn’s unforgettable diatribe against book reviewers and critics, ‘the town councillors of literature’ has the ring of truth about it, but is also a reaction to the terrifying thought of being judged.
Although it acts as a cautionary tale to prospective writers, (and you can’t avoid the feeling that this is the life that Warner has not only seen in others, but feared for himself if he hadn’t decided to take the chance to actually write), Warner’s novel is as much a celebration of reading as writing. Llewellyn and Cunningham use their not inconsiderable learning and knowledge of literature as an intellectual weapon with which to best others, or each other, and a shield against accusations of being uncommitted or amateur. Their reading is crucial to their sense of superiority and self deception, as they convince themselves they are learning from the best before they join them. How they are perceived as readers is as important as how they are perceived as writers, and the question is posed, ‘Do we read to benefit ourselves or for the benefit of others?’.
Their Lips Talk of Mischief is another exceptional novel from Alan Warner, a writer who delights in engaging with modern culture, philosophy and ideology. He deals with themes of isolation and existence and places them in a contemporary context, but he does so in a manner which is intricate, compelling, often outrageous, and, whisper it, incredibly entertaining. I should also mention that the writing itself is absolutely beautiful. He may hate the comparisons, I don’t know, but Warner is at least the equal of Self, Amis or McEwan, although he is far more fun to read than all of them, and, alongside Ali Smith (more of whom very soon), there is no other writer whose new work I look forward to more. Like all the best artists he doesn’t take himself too seriously, but takes what he does very seriously indeed, and so should we.