Their Lips Talk of Mischief
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.