It's not easy writing about the young. Many a competent writer has stumbled into hilarious solecism (think C P Snow's The Malcontents) when donning the baggy trousers and expensive trainers of youth. But this is familiar territory for Alan Warner. From his debut, Morvern Callar, to this offering's prequel, the fortuitously titled The Sopranos, young girls are what he does.
The Sopranos (Manda, Kay, Kylah, Chell, Finn) are, as the blurb tells us, back. Now in their twenties, they are off on holiday to get drunk, talk about sex, and argue. And that, in terms of causality, is pretty much that. But this is realism, an exercise in mimicry. With his tough-talking Scots, Warner works firmly in the low-mimetic mode: and the voice is demotic, multiple and transsexual.
So, does he pull it off? Well, consider this: "...she was as ancient as old Rose in Titanic." Now this: "That reception guy was more gay than Brian from Big Brother." Something's not right. The references are there, clunkingly enough: reality TV. Check. Mawkish cinema. Check. Warner understands youth's preoccupations, its grammar, so to speak -- but not always its syntax. He knows what they say, but not always how they say it.
Sometimes he just gets it wrong. The girls enter a room filled with (comparatively) old people: "Hello granddads, what did yous do in the war?" Nothing, of course. The motif of youngsters bored by dotards' tales of war glory is a generation out. It is equally unlikely that the painstakingly thick Manda would even be aware of Private Eye's monicker for News of the World ("The News of the Screws"). She certainly wouldn't call it that; Alan Warner, you suspect, does.
There is a basic tension here common to all novels: between the author's desire to imprint his stamp onto every sentence -- what the critic James Wood calls the planting of authorial flags -- or to let each one (and character) speak for itself. Take Manda on the performing Mick Jagger: "He looks like a tapeworm being electrocuted." This is excellent; the image is as sharp as it is true. The only problem is it doesn't sound like Manda, the 20-year old hairdresser; it sounds like Alan Warner, the 45-year old comic novelist. The flag here, if not waved, is certainly brandished.
Such solecisms, though, are largely rescued by his style, which descends in a straight line from his powers of observation. Airplanes take off with "aural fury"; a cleavage is "varnished with sweat". That necropolis of taste, the airport bar, is adorned with numerous flat screen TVs on the walls "hanging like chimps from trees".
This awareness is transmitted directly to the dialogue, which forms the bulk of the novel. In lives not yet lived enough for actual accomplishment, hierarchy is worked out through the cutting remark ("Water retention. It's pizza and Big Mac retention she suffers from"), the "sly" or even "slyest" glance. Pages and pages are chewed up by discussion of bikini waxes and haircuts, acrylic nails. 150 pages detail an overnight stay at an airport hotel. In this the book's very structure echoes its subject: the vast nothingness of adolescence, its epic triviality -- where a lost passport provokes conspiracy theory and a tattoo, awed secrecy.
Finally, the author understands the great generational shift - that of aspiration. A lively personality should take you not to the stage but Big Brother. Good singers wouldn't want a record deal, but a shot at Popstars (such is the fastidiousness of Warner's cultural referencing that the novel is clearly located in or a short time after 2001). Fame in and of itself, and not as a byproduct of talent, is now the goal.
None of this is especially new of course. But Warner sees this world: of Kylahs and Keighliehs, Brittanys and Dwaynes, with their mobile phone addiction and text speak, their chants ("pub, pub, pub, pub"') and their violence; and he is not scared. As writers enter middle age there is often a regrettable tendency to moral retreat - disgust at the world: at women, the young, whatever; as seen in, for example, the later work of Kingsley Amis. Warner writes not with scorn but with empathy; which is, in the end, what these kids and the thousands like them, need.
The Stars in the Bright Sky
Jonathan Cape, 400pp, £12.99