Does the world really need another book about writers eking out a living at the beginning of their careers; another portrait of artists as young men? The slightly disingenuous adage to write what you know has somehow convinced a generation of young writers – often with little other experience – to write books about, well, young writers.
While many of the resultant volumes have reflected the contents of their authors’ navels, others, such as Adelle Waldman’s excellent The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., have managed to transcend the hermetic self-absorption of their setting by using it to probe far more interesting ideas.
Alan Warner’s Their Lips Talk of Mischief is thankfully in this latter vein. Its milieu is not, as its Withnail-like co-lead Lou promises early in the proceedings, the London publishing world that he hopes to storm, but rather the dingy pubs and dingier apartments of those happy to live the supposed lives of writers without ever putting pen to paper. Comparing themselves to Joyce and Beckett, Warner’s wannabe scribes Cunningham and Lou are less your first-time novelists and part-time critics than ambitious readers whose standards are ultimately self-crippling. The only piece of fiction written by either of them in the course of the novel gets fed, quite drunkenly, out a window and onto the railway tracks.
Warner’s prose is unimpeachable: he takes obvious pleasure in describing London, which he respects too much to soil with staid metaphor, and he renders regional accents and dialects with the skill of a ventriloquist. His characterisation, too, is superb. Lou is to English literature what Richard E. Grant’s Withnail was to the country’s cinema. What is impressive is that Warner never allows Cunningham to become a mere cipher, like Paul McGann’s Marwood, choosing instead to put him through the emotional wringer. The female characters – Lou’s wife, Aoife, with whom Cunningham falls in love, and her best friend Abby, with a tendency to bed (who else?) young writers – are just as well drawn.
For readers rather like Cunningham and Lou themselves, it is difficult not to wish there was more of the opening chapter’s booze-sodden lit-talk throughout the subsequent chapters. Such readers would probably like to be 20, poor, well-read and self-destructive all over again. Warner makes it seem like such a treat. Then again, he also knows he’s having you on. MD
Faber & Faber, 320pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 18, 2014 as "Alan Warner, Their Lips Talk of Mischief".
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