There are some writers whose work isn’t easily categorised, who try something new each time, refusing to simply repeat past successes. Alan Warner is undoubtedly one such writer. From his acclaimed and much-loved debut Morvern Callar, he has kept readers guessing – not only from novel to novel, but often within the novels themselves.
His latest, Kitchenly 434, is a return to a more unexpected and experimental style, recalling earlier novels These Demented Lands and The Man Who Walks. Like those, it’s more about the writing than the story. It does feature regular Warner tropes, such as left-field musical references, central characters who find it difficult to ‘fit in’, actions which could either be innocent or sinister, unconventional relationships, quirky and memorable characters, and an uncanny attention to detail which places the period precisely – in this case, 1979.
As regular readers would expect, there are passages which are beautifully written, even, or perhaps especially, when not that much happens. The plot, such as it is, is about one man’s attempt to adapt to an ever-changing world as the protected bubble in which he exists threatens to pop.
The central character, Crofton Clark, has been looking after Kitchenly Mill Race, a baronial country getaway belonging to Marko Morell, star guitarist in ‘70s rock giants Fear Taker, since 1973. With Marko and his family regularly on tour, or at one of their other homes, Crofton is left to manage the estate, seeing himself as faithful retainer rather than simply the steward.
Such a set up is very much a period piece - a time when best-selling musicians had so much money they often didn't know what to spend it on, and the rock star country mansion became a cliche in itself. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, and many others all moved to huge piles in the country on the back of touring and record sales. Do a Google image search of 'George Harrison + Friar Park, Henley' you'll get an idea of the sort of place Crofton is nominally in charge of, and why it would be easy to get lost there.
Crofton is a man out of time, leading a sheltered life as the often bleak Britain of the 1970s moves through its cultural, social, and political changes. He tries his very best to maintain the (ahem!) status quo, at times leading to events which would not be out of place in a classic British farce, or even a Shakespeare comedy, with characters desperately being kept apart less they bring Crofton's world crashing down.
When the brave new world arrives at the gates of Kitchenly Mill, his reaction is that of a child looking to fit in with new friends and once again belong. He befriends, or at least shows off to, two girls from the nearby village who say they are looking to get their Fear Taker albums signed, but who really just fancy a nosey.
These chapters are at the heart of the novel, with Crofton wanting desperately to impress his new companions, but not understanding their language and cultural references - understandably. It’s very funny, excruciating at times, and verging on the slapstick at others. But it is the point in the novel where Crofton starts to realise a change is going to come, even if he fears it. He may have been able to deny punk and new wave from the safety of Kitchenly Mill, but he has just let the '80s in - the genie is out of the bottle.
If you are honest, you may recognise something of yourself in Crofton Clark and you may not like it. He is an individual who is keen to impress, to be a 'big deal', but who refuses to take responsibility when things go wrong, or at least his errors are uncovered. He is uneasy with himself, and with others, and therefore is the perfect hero for Kitchenly 434. It's a novel that never allows you to settle; which makes sense as, with Alan Warner, you should always expect the unexpected.
A version of this review first appeared in SNACK Magazine.