Jonathan McAloon

The Prob­lem with Lan­guage

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H(a)ppy, Nicola Barker, Heine­mann, July 2017, £20.00, 304 pp. (Hard­cover) Dur­ing the 90s and the first decade of this mil­le­nium, Nicola Barker os­cil­lated be­tween writ­ing small-scale comic romps and (more promi­nently) mas­sive, am­bi­tious nov­els with el­e­ments of both state-of-the-na­tion page turner and mer­cu­rial ex­per­i­ment. If any ad­jec­tive can be ap­plied con­sis­tently to the ou­vre, it is in­deed ‘mer­cu­rial’. Of all Bri­tish writ­ers on the cusp of be­ing ma­jor – if she is not al­ready con­sid­ered ma­jor – Barker is per­haps the most mer­cu­rial of them all. (More on that word later.) Her quarry has al­ways been the trou­ble-maker, the mys­te­ri­ous ar­rival, the wrecker, the rebel with­out a clue; the strange home­com­ing. And home was in­vari­ably a fa­mil­iar set­ting of Bri­tish mun­dan­ity, un­der­cut with a fa­mil­iar Bri­tish bawdi­ness and gal­lows hu­mour: a Lu­ton golf course, var­i­ous mid­dleEng­land sub­urbs, a town near the Chan­nel Tun­nel, a box sus­pended above the Thames. But it was rarely reached with­out lengthy stopovers in the muddy Me­dieval past or among is­land cults, pass­ing through col­lec­tions of death-camp me­mora­bilia or nar­ra­tive games you didn’t know you were play­ing un­til you lost.

Her itchy vari­a­tion and en­ergy has been re­warded, and in Novem­ber her lat­est novel H(a)ppy won the Goldsmiths Prize. Naomi Wood, Chair of Judges for the £10,000 award, said that: ‘In Barker’s 3D-sculp­ture of a novel, H(a)ppy makes the case for the novel as a phys­i­cal form and an ob­ject of art.’ It takes place in a fu­ture world where ‘The In­for­ma­tion Stream’, a sort of state-sanc­tioned search en­gine, is beamed di­rectly into peo­ple’s heads. In turn, peo­ple such as our nar­ra­tor Mira A have their emo­tions made vis­i­ble to them­selves and their peers via ‘The Graph’, so they can be re­viewed, cor­rected and ‘bal­anced’. As she tells her story, words such as ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ and ‘ are con­sis­tently bolded up in dif­fer­ent colours. Th­ese are ‘ words’ that, even ut­tered, can

sug­gest a surge in emo­tion, and must only be used with ‘im­mense self­aware­ness and cau­tion’. As she nar­rates, we see her emo­tions fluc­tu­ate or bal­ance them­selves.

In ‘The Past’, Mira A has learned that de­sire, am­bi­tion, per­fec­tion­ism, Re­li­gion, nar­ra­tive and the peo­ple’s be­lief in ‘a nat­u­ral right to in­for­ma­tion’ led to war and the de­struc­tion of ‘The Old’. But ‘The Young’ live in a world af­ter ‘recorded time’ where no­body ever gets ill. Their ex­is­tence can be seen as an ex­treme state of mind­ful­ness; char­ac­ters push­ing aside de­struc­tive emo­tions while liv­ing ‘in This Mo­ment’. Gender, too, has al­most been sur­passed. Ex­em­plary mem­bers of The Young (or rather, par­tic­u­larly un­re­mark­able mem­bers; ex­em­plar­i­ness is it­self a sin) be­come ‘Full Neuter’. Mira A would one day like to be­come one her­self. And while she as­pires to this, reg­u­lat­ing her emo­tions and re­sponses in real time, she finds her­self at­tracted to one of th­ese Full Neuters, dis­cov­ers a seem­ingly for­bid­den piece of gui­tar mu­sic, and comes into con­tact with what might be ei­ther a glitch in her emo­tional ma­chin­ery or a sup­pressed dou­ble self: Mira B. This leads her to learn of the Paraguayan gui­tarist Agustín Bar­rios, the his­tory of his op­pressed in­dige­nous peo­ple, and the ef­forts to sup­press their lan­guage, Guaraní.

Barker has for a while rev­elled in ty­po­graph­i­cal high­jinx. Char­ac­ters from 2014’s In the Ap­proaches dis­played aware­ness that they were think­ing in cap­i­tal let­ters; in 2016’s The Cauliflower the word salt was bolded up and there were winky face emoti­cons – ;) – at the bot­tom of pas­sages. But H(a)ppy is the first of her works, one feels, where Barker is telling a story about the medium in which she writes. The power of H(a)ppy, es­pe­cially in the age of so­cial me­dia and in­stant judge­ment or con­dem­na­tion, comes from its de­pic­tion of a mind cen­sor­ing it­self, cor­rect­ing it­self or ob­serv­ing it­self mid-flow. ‘Some­times, on the farm, I gaze into the “sun” and think il­licit thoughts (I am do­ing just that as I think this)’; in a dream she ‘un­in­ten­tion­ally (but was it un­in­ten­tional?) de­clared war on The Young!’ To­day we can craft or even sched­ule spon­tane­ity on so­cial me­dia, but there is no way of us call­ing it back once it has been cached. Mira A’s story presents us with a re­al­ity in which ev­ery­thing one ever thinks is cached,

and must be pre-cen­sored. But at its finer mo­ments, H(a)ppy also dis­plays a world with limited ac­cess to lan­guage, not be­cause of the ‘ ex­treme’ words that are re­jected, but be­cause of what was never given to The Young in the first place.

When Mira A is accused of be­ing ‘mer­cu­rial’, that word is ex­plained to her as be­ing of ‘lively tem­per­a­ment’, which of course doesn’t cover half of that word’s sense and im­pli­ca­tions. The Young can not only be be­trayed by lan­guage, but have been shielded from its true ca­pa­bil­i­ties. This is a book in which lan­guage it­self poses var­i­ous and com­plex prob­lems for its char­ac­ters. Which is ap­pro­pri­ate, be­cause lan­guage has al­ways posed strange, sur­pris­ing prob­lems in Barker’s oeu­vre, for reader and au­thor. And in her new book, the prob­lem of why she has per­sisted writ­ing in a lan­guage that many crit­ics deem sloppy, or over­writ­ten, is in some ways ad­dressed, if not solved.

Be­tween roughly 1994 and 2012, Barker re­fined her mix­ture of nar­ra­tive hard work and read­erly play, and since then has writ­ten a suc­ces­sion of very pow­er­ful books, all dif­fer­ent from one an­other and what she has done be­fore. In her early works, she man­aged to com­bine the ex­plo­ration and the dis­missal of nar­ra­tive func­tion while re­tain­ing the bull-ring qual­ity of con­ven­tional nar­ra­tive that leads us wher­ever the au­thor wants to take us, re­gard­less of whether it’s where we’d like to be. Her big­ger works Be­hin­dlings (2002) and Dark­mans (2007) won ac­claim (the lat­ter was Booker-short­listed) and had a com­pul­sive read­abil­ity, de­spite read­ers and re­view­ers alike not know­ing what was go­ing on. By The Yips, In the Ap­proaches, and The Cauliflower, read­ers and crit­ics knew what was go­ing on, but re­served the right to find her way of go­ing about things ei­ther won­der­ful or tire­some or both. (Alex Clarke’s 2002 pro­nounce­ment in The Guardian, ‘To ar­gue that [ap­pre­ci­at­ing Barker] de­pends largely on your taste might seem a crit­i­cal cop-out, but there are some writ­ers for whom this is more true than oth­ers,’ con­tin­ued to echo through re­view pages, though taste seemed to be for the most part on her side.) Th­ese later books

worked on lev­els of read­abil­ity as well as high-brow in­no­va­tion be­cause her pi­o­neer­ing didn’t feel like it was in con­flict with what could read­ily be taken for granted in her nov­els. ‘Okay, so you’re just go­ing to have to sus­pend your… uh …’ is what one char­ac­ter says to an­other to­wards the end of 2012’s The Yips. It is a per­fect ex­am­ple of how her cre­ations com­ment on, feed into and send up her tricksi­ness, and is lit­er­ary prat­falling of the most in­clu­sive kind. If you’ve been to school, you get it.

A sim­i­lar con­ces­sion hap­pens on the level of the sen­tence. There has al­ways been, and re­mains, an in­tran­si­gent worka­day­ness to Barker’s prose. Re­view­ers have been draw­ing at­ten­tion to it for the du­ra­tion of her ca­reer, yet the re­dun­dant or tau­to­log­i­cal ad­jec­tives (‘an ex­haust­ing, twelve-hour shift’) ad­verbs (‘Es­ther warns him, sharply’, ‘per­spir­ing un­con­trol­lably’ (how can one per­spire with con­trol?)) or verbs (‘“Enough, Mal­lory!” the priest rep­ri­mands her’) that crit­ics had al­ways made a point of iden­ti­fy­ing are fre­quently in ev­i­dence in her lat­est books. Char­ac­ters are still giv­ing ‘a melo­dra­matic sigh’; wives are still nec­es­sar­ily ‘beloved’. This lack of so­phis­ti­ca­tion must be con­scious. Re­view­ers would have been lis­tened to, ei­ther by au­thor or ed­i­tor, were it some­thing that wasn’t part of the de­sign. The com­pro­mise, one feels, is this: in works that come with many chal­lenges, writ­ers must care­fully choose con­ces­sions to their read­ers.

Writ­ing that feels cos­met­i­cally un­con­cerned is a less dense medium for the reader than self-con­sciously ex­quis­ite prose. There are fewer pauses for awe. Noth­ing needs to be savoured. You never find your­self loi­ter­ing in the slow lane, bet­ter to ad­mire the views. Karl Ove Knaus­gaard, as he wrote his My Strug­gle books, didn’t feel the need to purge them of in­fe­lic­i­ties or cliché. There is a sense of their con­tents rush­ing at you, then tak­ing you along with them. Once you are used to ex­pect­ing lit­tle from prose in the way of aes­thet­ics, it by­passes your fac­ulty for judg­ing it, which speeds up the process of read­ing, al­low­ing you to glide over the sur­face of the prose. And Barker is less in­ter­ested in fine prose than she is in a prose that com­mu­ni­cates how things are vivid, in mo­tion; part of a yarn. Her prose is a nec­es­sary ex­ten­sion of her own ex­u­ber­ance as an au­thor and her ex­u­ber­ance about the sub­jects she has cho­sen. And while her char­ac­ters are

for­ever ‘perched on so­fas’ or ‘grop[ing] for [their] trusty pack of Ben­sons’, chal­leng­ing ideas and dif­fi­cult for­mal de­vices can pig­gy­back on the prose with­out you re­al­is­ing. Th­ese are al­ways dif­fer­ent. Rules change from book to book.

An LRB re­view de­scribes Be­hin­dlings, which is about a charis­matic cult leader in an is­land com­mu­nity, as ‘full of the stuff of con­ven­tional rip-roar­ing nar­ra­tive… But it’s also ide­o­log­i­cally op­posed to of­fer­ing con­ven­tional pay-offs, or, in some cases, any res­o­lu­tion at all.’ In The Yips, ten years later, Barker has char­ac­ters dis­cuss a ‘ba­sic phi­los­o­phy’ of life which cen­tres on ‘No phi­los­o­phy. No guid­ance. No struc­ture. No pay-offs. No real con­se­quences. Just stuff and then more stuff.’ The char­ac­ter, and writer, are nat­u­rally prompt­ing us to take this as a state­ment of the book’s own phi­los­o­phy. But, though true to much of her fic­tion, that would be mis­lead­ing here, be­cause The Yips it­self dis­plays a de­fined phi­los­o­phy, of­fers nar­ra­tive guid­ance and solid struc­ture. Ev­ery­thing is mar­shalled to­wards and con­cerned with pay­offs that con­ven­tion­ally sat­isfy af­ter their sprawl. Two books later, in The Cauliflower, Barker ex­presses op­po­site ideas; fo­cus­ing on the nine­teenth-cen­tury Hindu mys­tic Sri Ra­makr­ishna and his var­i­ous pa­trons and dis­ci­ples, the point of view skips be­tween char­ac­ters and sto­ry­lines with al­most an anti-ten­sion. Pas­sages from Bleak House and the Song of Solomon, along with fem­i­nist re­claim­ings of fig­ures Rud­yard Ki­pling once ob­served in Cal­cutta, wres­tle fo­cus from the main plot (if there is one). Time and per­spec­tive are tog­gled be­tween: on­screen de­pic­tions of the his­tor­i­cal fig­ures in the book are ref­er­enced and de­scribed; the skin tone of a char­ac­ter born at the tailend of the eigh­teenth-cen­tury is likened to a latte.

The ob­jec­tive, more than telling a lin­ear story, is to tell the reader about some­thing: to give us in­ter­est­ing in­for­ma­tion. You come away af­ter­wards feel­ing grate­ful for now know­ing about it, and grate­ful to Barker for hav­ing such a sim­ple wish that is also an imag­i­na­tively dar­ing one. How many other books are there in which the writer, in an af­ter­word, re­veals that her in­ten­tion wasn’t even a nar­ra­tive in­ten­tion, but to write about a sub­ject be­cause it fas­ci­nated her and she wanted more peo­ple to know about it?

There are few sim­pler, bet­ter, or less eas­ily-ad­mit­ted rea­sons for writ­ing a book. But as there is no real nar­ra­tive, no real take-home but the thing it­self, why is The Cauliflower com­pelling in such an easy, fa­mil­iar way? The nar­ra­tive voice is con­stantly an­noy­ing, al­ways ir­re­sistible, full of those winky-face emoti­cons. Its’ knowl­edge is worn in var­i­ous de­grees of light­ness. (I keep re­turn­ing to the idea of light­ness. That’s be­cause Barker is an au­thor whose work should be heavy but never is.)

What makes this book (which could eas­ily have been a fail­ure) so en­joy­able is the au­tho­rial qual­ity that makes her prose it­self quite tire­some on the aes­thetic level: the im­pul­sive ex­u­ber­ance of a rest­less mind. The imag­i­na­tion that al­lows her to iden­tify a great but awk­ward idea and tena­ciously sus­tain it over a whole book, to pick sto­ries that en­dear you to her choices, is the same thing that al­lows her to stick a re­dun­dant ad­verb here or there: to im­pro­vise and not check her­self where some might pre­fer she did. It is as if she is en­gaged in mak­ing the sort of art that Mira A in H(a)ppy must make, which re­flects the ‘New Path’, is based on ego­less im­pro­vi­sa­tion: an al­most vir­tu­ous care­less­ness that must avoid im­prove­ment. But is also the art that is for­bid­den to Mira A and The Young. It is nar­ra­tive which, even as it tries to re­sist ex­u­ber­ance, can’t help scream­ing out, as Mira A, or her re­pressed self, does: ‘I MUST TELL THE STORY OF MY­SELF! I MUST TELL IT EVEN IF – IN ALL LIKE­LI­HOOD – IT ISN’T EVEN MY STORY BUT THE STORY OF SOME­ONE ELSE.’

Un­til H(a)ppy, it seemed as if what kept Barker open to new read­ers, de­spite the am­bi­tion of her ideas and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, was pre­cisely what stopped a large chunk of sea­soned read­ers feel­ing un­equiv­o­cal rev­er­ence. Her lan­guage wel­comed in, or even en­abled the un­fussy, while giv­ing the fussy pause. With her lat­est novel, though, lan­guage it­self has achieved a deeper, darker func­tion. What is dif­fer­ent about The Young, from the in­tel­lec­tu­ally neutered in­hab­i­tants of sim­i­lar dystopian land­scapes (re­mem­ber the 2002 Chris­tian Bale sci-fi ve­hi­cle Equi­lib­rium, set in a fu­ture where ex­pres­sion is out­lawed and ev­ery­one is re­quired to take emo­tional seda­tives?) is that they

are aware of the dra­matic irony from which they suf­fer. ‘We are wry, but we are ac­cept­ing.’ They know the way they live is bland, is an es­chew­ing of some­thing they can feel in them, but are re­signed to what has been de­cided and ac­knowl­edged: theirs is the only state in which hu­man­ity can ex­ist in com­fort and pre­serve the means to ex­ist at all.

And Barker, as a writer, ben­e­fits from the world she has cre­ated, as it presents an artificial means of cur­tail­ing her own mer­cu­rial im­pulses on the mi­cro level. She is forced, by her own rules in H(a)ppy – ‘TER­RI­BLE DIS­CI­PLINE’, as Mira A might say – to ‘bal­ance’ her prose. Mira A isn’t al­lowed to in­dulge in what she calls EOEs (Ex­cesses of Emo­tion): flights of fancy, cre­ativ­ity or ex­pres­sion for the sake of it. But an EOE can also been seen as the ex­u­ber­ant in­fe­lic­i­ties with which Barker’s books are filled. They are the el­e­gant vari­a­tions she has put in to amuse her­self and nat­u­rally re­fuses to cut out, which don’t con­trib­ute to the work’s aes­thetic value and lead re­view­ers to sug­gest she needs a more strin­gent ed­i­tor: her own ‘Graph’.

This doesn’t mean H(a)ppy is free of her usual EOEs. Char­ac­ters are still found ‘per­spir­ing un­con­trol­lably’. But what is left is a leaner, more ur­gent Barker, who para­dox­i­cally seems more in tune with the mer­cu­rial en­er­gies that we most value in her. And the forced, sani­tised op­ti­mism of how Mira A is sup­posed to be, com­bined with the ap­pro­pri­ately sani­tised style, puts the un­der­side of the book’s story in re­lief, which is about the ex­tinc­tion of lan­guage it­self. Mira A is led to dis­cover how the in­dige­nous Guaraní peo­ples of Paraguay were for­bid­den from speak­ing their na­tive lan­guage, start­ing in the 1870s and last­ing un­til the fall of the dic­ta­tor Al­fredo Stroess­ner in 1989. We re­alise, af­ter the fact, that a soft ver­sion of this has been prac­tised on The Young, whose iden­tity has been cur­tailed through lim­its on in­for­ma­tion and lan­guage, just as Mira A is un­able to ex­press all the nu­ances of the word mer­cu­rial.

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