The Problem with Language
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.