Warner's new book is set in 1980s student London. Photo: Gwydion M Williams/Flickr
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A literary Withnail and I: Alan Warner’s Their Lips Talk of Mischief

The latest novel by the author of Morvern Callar is set in a boozy, 1980s student London.

Their Lips Talk of Mischief 
Alan Warner
Faber & Faber, 352pp, £14.99

In Patrick Marber’s 1997 play Closer, a doctor verbally assaults a novelist with what feels, in that moment, to be the most withering of put-downs: “You writer!” Those two words, delivered with such venom, are certain to sting the ego of anyone who derives a sense of self-worth from their work in fiction and its cultural worth as a medium. “Writer” – it just sounds so pathetic, so frivolous.

The status of the novelist has always been affected by what goes on at the periphery of the writing itself. Until the early 19th century, high literature was the domain of poets; it wasn’t until industrialisation and the rise of the urban middle classes that the novel was accepted as the pre-eminent means of literary expression. The form had existed in the English language since the 1480s and many novels had since sold well, but the serious (that is, male) reader was devoted to sweeping visions set in metre and rhyme. Milton was grand, Blake was holy and Byron was phallic. Leave the frivolities of prose to women!

Or so things were, once. When I first became aware of literature as a child in the late 1980s, fiction writers had claim to a kind of macho rock-star status. Of course, only actual rock stars had the real thing – no reasonable reader has been inspired to mosh or mouth along with the author at a book launch – but an aura of glamour shone from the likes of Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, even Stephen King.

The poets, less so. In Alan Warner’s Their Lips Talk of Mischief, a novel set conspicuously in 1984, the boozy young protagonists Llewellyn Smith and Douglas Cunningham – a literary Withnail and I – meet in a London hospital waiting room, where Scottish UCL dropout Cunningham is trying to steal a few moments of sleep after being turfed out of his student accommodation. It’s the bromance equivalent of love at first sight. Within moments of leaving the sterile A&E, the pair of them are plotting what they decide will be their swift rise to fame in the book world over pints in a local pub. And it’s fiction that deserves their talents, the only arena fit for their genius. “Poets are OK for nicking similes off. What else?” asks Llewellyn (known to his friends as Lou), dismissively.

Warner landed with a splash in the mid-1990s with Morvern Callar, another novel with a novel at its centre. In that Scots drama, a woman passes off her dead lover’s work as her own. In Warner’s new book, there is yet again a whiff of charlatanism. Lou, for all his braggadocio, comes across as a dreamer in the vein of Hal Hartley’s film creation Henry Fool: a devilish unlocker of the imaginations of those around him, but possessed of little potential of his own. He shows Cunningham his edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, in which he has underlined “great words . . . the words I’m going to use in my novel”. Hardly a promising methodology.

Cunningham moves in with Lou in his run-down west London flat, where he meets Aoife, his new mucker’s “menacingly beautiful” fiancée. There, the characters talk books, get profoundly drunk and stew in the inevitable sexual tension. Warner signposts Cunningham’s ever-growing attraction to Aoife with a gleeful lack of subtlety.

The London the characters inhabit is less “West End Girls” and Big Bang than the men’s clubs of Minder, with the language of the TLS thrown in. The novel lovingly details the trappings of the 1980s (will today’s teenagers need a footnote explaining what phonecards are?) but its sense of nostalgia is most potent in the way it evokes the thrill of becoming an author.

For readers at a time when the median income of a professional writer is £11,000 – well below what the Joseph Rowntree Foundation deems necessary for a “minimum standard of living” – it will be almost startling to find characters so caught up in the fantasy of a starry literary life. Lou, who writes nothing at all in the course of Warner’s narrative, would no doubt deny it vehemently but it’s the prestige that then surrounded the published author that probably appeals to him.

While the book’s story about books deliberately goes nowhere, its romantic plotline has the velocity of an out-of-control Tube train. The problem, however, is the clumsy handling of the second half of the novel, which resorts to an unsatisfying LSD-trip sequence to resolve what was until then a delicately balanced scenario. Worse still, Warner ends on a note of hesitancy that speaks as much of his own doubts about how to conclude it all as it does the characters’. After the focus of The Deadman’s Pedal, Warner’s terrific 2012 novel, Their Lips Talk of Mischief feels like a diverting yet minor experiment in self-consciously literary fiction. Lou, a harsh critic at the best of times, may not approve. 

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The summer of blood

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.