The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven by Alan Warner

Jonathan Cape, 2006, 390p.

The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven cover

Warner has been known principally for stories featuring women, eg Morvern Callar and The Sopranos, or with Scottish settings, The Man Who Walks. The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven represents a departure, a different focus. None of its themes nor concerns could be considered narrowly Scottish.

A man is told by his doctor he has The Condition, which is nowadays not an inevitable death sentence. The novel is constructed from his activities of the next few weeks and his memories of the women he has known. (Not as many women as he once planned.)

There are striking stylistic and narrative echoes of other authors; William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms and John Banville’s The Sea, The Sea but more particularly of JG Ballard. This tendency was clinched on page 94 when a sentence was begun with the word already – a typically Ballardian usage. Reflecting this there is a Science Fictional tone to some of the language. A winter festival of gift giving is known as Three Kings, an area of construction and development is Phases Zones 1 and 2, a train destination is Kilometre 4. The Heaven in the title may be the local cemetery, which is mentioned several times.

As with Ballard and earlier Warner novels the tone is dry and distanced, hence none of the characters entirely springs to life. Indeed certain characters are not named but only given attributes, The Woman Who Watched, Puta of Asuncion, Beautiful Screamer, Manic Coma, though admittedly these last few are inmates of an asylum.

Despite hints – a past Civil War, a fascist regime – which clearly point to Spain, the author, through his narrator Manolo Follana, resolutely refuses to name the country in which the story is set, only saying variously our language, our country, our region, the Capital City. Said narrator has a particular animus against English as a language, with its similarly spelled words with totally different meanings, eg tear. He is, incidentally, capable of the spectacularly ugly (and ungrammatical) sentence; for example, “I showed Teresa the new units my Agency were designing the interiors of,” and occasionally uses “less” when “fewer” is the better choice.

A flavour of magic realism tinges the narrative, albeit at a less heightened level. A more or less adult Manolo is taught to swim by two Vietnamese girls in the confines of the rooftop water tank of the hotel where he was brought up. An old man dies in a bath in one of the hotel’s rooms with the taps still running; the bath ends up cascading through the ceiling of the dining room below where his granddaughters were eating. On two occasions, one fatal but offstage, the act of sex is accompanied by the shedding of blood.

In amongst all this there was the – in context rather jarring – Scotticism of the phrase “sweetie” wrapper.

The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven is an example of accomplished modern world fiction. For me, though, too many of the characters are insufficiently fleshed out.

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