Nicola Barker takes a unique place in contemporary literature. Critics seem to love her, yet few go further than that and get into what makes her books work. (For the avoidance of doubt, you should expect no better from this review.) In a sense, this is fair enough. If knocking Wodehouse’s books is “like taking a spade to a soufflé” (variously attributed to Punch magazine and Evelyn Waugh), then a similar caveat might apply to Barker. The fear is that if you look too closely, you might damage the delicate mechanism – or, worse yet, discover that there is no mechanism at all. Barker teases this fear by alternating between smaller books and bigger ones, between what we might call the slightly funny and the seriously funny. Her last novel, Burley Cross Postbox Theft, was one of what she calls the “naturally frivolous” ones.
The Yips is one of the big ones. Her last big one, Darkmans, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and the big one that came two before that was Wide Open, which won the Impac Dublin Literary Award. True to pattern, at time of writing, The Yips has just been longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize. If it goes on to win – I would love it to – then it will introduce Barker to a vast new audience who would expect nothing like this from a Booker winner.
That’s the thing about Barker: nothing can prepare you for her. She was aptly described almost 200 years ago by William Wordsworth, when he wrote that “every author, as far as he is great and at the same time original, has had the task of creating the taste by which he is to be enjoyed.” Of course he meant she. Barker gives the reader no context or clues before reading the book: no acknowledgements or author’s note, no chapter headings or sections named. The only epigraph is a definition of the title: “nervousness or tension that causes an athlete to fail to perform effectively, especially in missing short putts in golf.” She throws the reader in, mid-conversation, and proceeds to make the ordinary extraordinary for 550 pages.
The central character is Stuart Ransom, professional golfer and the finest character Martin Amis never created. The other characters circle him – I was going to say like planets in orbit, but it would be more in keeping with Barker’s affection for the mundane to say like cars on a roundabout. There is Valentine, an agoraphobic tattooist, whose mother has experienced a personality change since being hit on the head by one of Ransom’s golf balls, and now calls herself Frédérique. There’s Gene, the barman where Ransom is drinking at the start of the book, who has had cancer eight times (“once terminal”) and becomes Ransom’s caddie. There’s Gene’s wife Sheila, a priest, and Sheila’s son Stan, whom Gene allows to go off with Ransom in their Hummer, much to Sheila’s disquiet. There’s Jen, the 19-year-old beautician, and Karim, the sexual therapist whose wife’s burqa makes him worry that people will think him a misogynist. Not that he is, of course: “I can make a woman come by clapping my hands together…”
The characters are important because the book consists entirely of their interactions. That may sound facile, but it’s emphasised here by the long scenes of dialogue where, curiously, people tend to discuss what has already happened or what’s yet to come rather than what’s going on now. Of course, as what’s going on now is people talking, it makes a sort of circular sense. The way they talk is notable, too. Barker adopts a sort of heightened naturalism: the locutions, structures and emphases (she places even more reliance on italics than Salinger) are on the nose, but the content and length of the exchanges give the scenes a febrile, hyperreal quality. The people are characters, not caricatures, and the comedy fails only when it steers too near to the obvious. And when it stops being funny, the combination of seriousness and oddness exerts tremendous force, as in a scene where Karim’s wife takes off her burqa and Valentine puts it on.
As in other Barker novels, The Yips is heavily populated with eccentrics and outsiders, the sort of people who struggle to fit into society – or into most fiction, for that matter. Fortunately, Barker handles them without going anywhere near the dreaded curse of whimsy. She does not look down on or mock her characters, and she takes the reader with her, sometimes literally: the reader, for example, feels the same confusion as Ransom when he wakes up in a strange room. They are people who do not know how they got where they are, or where to go from here. Not coincidentally, many of the characters are involved in the business of transformation: a tattooist, a therapist, a beautician. Just as there is much strangeness and comedy in the book, there is seriousness too, and Valentine’s agoraphobia is one way into it. There is a good deal about body image, and the relationship between women and their homes. This goes from Louise Bourgeois’ sculptures to Anne Sexton’s poetry (“Some women marry houses. It’s another kind of skin”), or Robert Seidenberg’s psychiatric work which argues that agoraphobia develops “as a kind of unconscious protest … against the social and sexual straitjackets that society imposes on [women], and most of those pressures tend to originate in the home.”
Best of all is that the seriousness, like the comedy, is not forced. (In resisting the use of the word ‘eccentric’ in this review, I was reminded of Philip French on The Royal Tenenbaums: “Eccentricity is willed and is often a mask for nonentity. Individuality, like character, is earned and involves moral effort.”) Barker displays a refreshing refusal of significance: there is none of the heaviness of Meaning tramping across the page. You can take it as you find it. In any event, you don’t come to a Nicola Barker novel looking for signposted meaning. Her idiosyncratic page layout seems to emphasise this, with certain paragraphs indented on the first line and others not, with no pattern discernible. The reader seeking rules or a key will be frustrated.
The Yips is a pleasure of a book; murkiness of thought – it is violent, vigorous and vulgar – was never conveyed with so light a touch. It is deeply sad: the very title speaks of what happens when what you love becomes the thing that ruins you. Its internal self-reliance is so great that I am entirely unable to quote any of the brilliant dialogue, knowing that it simply would not work in isolation. (A function of that Wordsworthian quality again.) It is full of things which may or may not be real, and half the delight resides in the not knowing, such as (for me) the biggest laugh in the book, when the website www.baldytwinkle.com is mentioned. Click if you like. I haven’t. But don’t report back, please.