I have enjoyed many of Alan Warner’s previous novels, so it gives me no pleasure to report that his new book is so monumentally tedious that when two accountants turn up halfway through you think: great! Things might finally be getting interesting.
Kitchenly 434, set in Thatcherite Britain, is narrated by Crofton Clark, an aging hippy who lives at Kitchenly Mill Race, a Tudorbethan pile belonging to the mainly absentee rock star Marko Morell. Crofton loves both Marko and the house with an obsessiveness signalled by his frequent mentions of the fact. ‘I’m your, eh, caretaker,’ he reminds the owner. ‘I’m the retainer. I’m a faithful retainer of this house that I love.’
Marko rose to fame on the first wave of the English rock’n’roll revolution, during which he unleashed ‘a mighty noise of consequence and of economic empowerment’. Now he lives a life so detached from the real world that when he runs out of milk he flees to Barbados rather than go to the corner shop to buy some.
There are some very strange moments in this novel: a six-page disquisition on where to hang a washing line, and 12 pages on the procedure of drawing the house’s curtains (my heart sank when, 70 pages after reading this, I encountered the sentence: ‘Once again it was that time: to commence the drawing of the curtains throughout Kitchenly Mill Race’). It’s a book stuffed with untelling detail: ‘The pump did good work, but it needed frequent maintenance to stop it running rough’; and ‘half the house had been done in modern 13-amp rectangular peg BS1363 plugs and the rest in pre-war round peg’. If this sounds like an interestingly Oulipian experiment in the limits of exhaustive description I can only say that it doesn’t read like it.
Things get a bit livelier when Rose and Nat, teenage girls from the village, arrive at the gates to ask to have some records signed. They don’t really know who Marko is, but Crofton shows them around and falls slightly in love with them.
Kitchenly 434 wants to be a period piece about Thatcherite ambition and the social upheaval that came with it, but it’s really an exercise in hazy nostalgia: typewriters and xerox machines and people drinking cans of Tizer and ordering chicken in a basket and bottles of Blue Nun.
It’s in the writing, however, that you really wonder what’s gone wrong with Warner: sloppy redundancies — ‘one single street’ (as opposed to two single streets?) and a line of trees ‘all fully shielding the historic residence’ (if they’re all fully shielding it, what need for more than one?); clichés (‘Mums. What can you do with them?’); similes that don’t quite land (‘Everything is as precisely arranged as the sharpened instruments upon a readied cancer surgeon’s tray’); and sentences which verge on the grammatically garbled (‘No one needs the opportunity to make a fool of oneself in the eyes of your peers’).
You might say, charitably, that these wobbles can be ascribed to Crofton, who comes across as particular and slightly pretentious, and who, in thought and speech, echoes the self-absorption of memoirs about rock stars, every anecdote ending with an implied ‘and then we all laughed’. But the voice is relentless, and the overall effect is like being buttonholed by an aging roadie obsessed with Grand Designs.