By Alan Warner
Farrar Straus Giroux. 324 pp. $24
Reviewed by Simon Reynolds
What is it about Alan Warner and the lassies? Morvern Callar, his highly acclaimed debut about the adventures of a 21-year-old supermarket stock girl from a remote Scottish port, was a striking attempt to write from inside the young female mind. Warner's latest, The Sopranos, goes five better, recounting 24 hours in the life of a gang of convent schoolgirls from the same small sea town. It's a more eventful all-day-and-all-of-the-night than normal, though: The girls have travelled to the Scottish capital to participate in a national choir competition, but instead of biding their time responsibly until the evening's televised contest, they go on the rampage, seizing the city's opportunities for fun and trouble, and ultimately disgracing themselves and their school.
There's something blatantly vicarious about the way Warner, age 34, revels in the 17-year-old girls' salty repartee, bawdy imaginations, and prodigious alcohol intake; a barely concealed envy in his admiring portrayal of their camaraderie, wit and impulsiveness. Occasionally Warner pauses the narrative for full-on exaltation: "They've youth; they'll walk it out like a favorite pair [of sneakers]. It's a poem this youth . . . We should get shoved aside cause they have it now, in glow of skin and liquid clarity of deep eye on coming June nights and cause it will go . . . After all what do we amount to but a load of old worn-out shoes?"
Sparks fly from the friction between these girls' boundless hormonal energy and the multiple obstacles they face -- oppressions of age, class, gender and region (they live in a provincial backwater of a country, Scotland, itself subordinated within the UK). Early in the book, the sopranos run into a former classmate who quit school pregnant after a one-night stand with a sailor. Warner writes poignantly about the awkwardness of the encounter, as the girls sense that their old friend now dwells on the other side of a definite boundary: Her life is effectively over; "she'd devoured the few opportunities for the wee bit [of] sparkle that was ever going to come her way."
Rather less subtly, Warner positions the girls as renegades against the gerontocratic, life-denying regime of the convent school: They are pure instinct and raw sensuality struggling to express itself through the only avenues left unsealed by the frigid, dried-up nuns -- namely, secretly shortening the length of their regulation tartan skirts and wearing colorful shoelaces. This theme of Catholic girls as volcanoes of pent-up libido (27-and-counting girls at the school get pregnant that year) is rather hackneyed, but it doesn't stop Warner from overplaying it. It's one of a handful of false notes in The Sopranos -- along with the implausibly hip music taste of one the girls, Kylah, and a lesbian love subplot that reads as a distinctly masculine fantasy.
Quibbles aside, The Sopranos exudes an overpowering feeling of reality. Warner has the sharpest ear for dialogue this side of his compatriot Irvine Welsh. The way he captures the rhythms of girl-talk -- the Ping-pong rallies, swerves, non sequiturs and explosions of hilarity -- suggest he's spent a lot of time eavesdropping in McDonald's or hanging around school playgrounds. Like Welsh's novels, notably Trainspotting, The Sopranos is rich in both pungent slang ("pissed mortal" equals extremely drunk, and "dinnae scum us out!" is roughly equivalent to the Valley girl's "gag me with a spoon") and regional dialect ("greets" means sobs, "oxters" are armpits), which is cleverly deployed so that the reader can work out the meaning from the context.
Like Morvern Callar, the whole book is written in vernacular Scottish, with phonetic spellings. The difference is that the first novel was all from Morvern's point of view, whereas The Sopranos has an omniscient narrator who speaks like the girls, only more self-consciously poetically. Although this creates vivid language -- "there was a bit of silentness," neologisms like "gigglestifled" -- it can occasionally come across as forced.
Ultimately, The Sopranos is neither social realism (it's not humdrum or uneventful enough) nor magic realism (despite some heavy-handed symbolism involving an escaped Venezuelan parrot) but something in between. It's about the strangeness of ordinary people and the absurdist poetry of everyday life. In some ways, it's less a narrative than a concatenation of stories, the sort of anecdotes you might pick up in a pub and pass on, the tale growing in the telling: mad things such-and-such a person did when drunk, bizarre incidents that befell a friend of a friend.
Like the other inhabitants of their town, the sopranos love telling tales; you sense that the mischief and mayhem they get up to in this action-packed, alcohol-soaked 24 hours is entering their collective mythology even as it happens. Compared with Morvern Callar's oddly bleak hedonism, The Sopranos is remarkably upbeat. Despite the ever-present sense of youth's transience and the looming shadow of the socio-economic odds stacked against the girls, the book ends on a high note. Unlike Trainspotting, it won't need to have its ambivalences ironed out to be transformed into the feel-good youth movie it's clearly destined to be.
Simon Reynolds is author of "Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture."