Nicola Barker: The Yips

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 is mentioned. Click if you like. I haven’t. But don’t report back, please.


  1. I’ve shelled out for this one as I think Nicola Barker is brilliant – Glad to know I have a treat in store with The Yips – I used to live in Harlow, then Stevenage and quite familiar with Luton so I feel I’ll know the environs of this one really well.

    Barker hooked me back when I read ‘Clear’ which is centred about the stunt that magician David Blaine did being suspended in a glass box on the South Bank “it’s like the embankment is a toilet and Blaine is just the scented rim-block dangling in his disposable plastic container from the bowl at the top.” That quote was perfect.

    I love that her characters are all ordinary folk, and she chronicles the minutiae of their lives so as to make them extraordinary.

  2. My copy arrived last week and I have to admit the sheer bulk of it was daunting. My experiences with Barker have been positive, especially Darkmans, although I have felt that maybe a little more self-discipline would have helped (I know that is a forelorn hope: as you point out that kind of free-wheeling is part of her charm and it can’t always work).

    So I am much heartened by this positive assessment since I haven’t been looking forward to the other Booker longlisters that I have on hand. I’ll move it to the top of the Booker pile.

  3. Fine review, as ever. I want to read a book that includes ‘the finest character Martin Amis never created’. That is a violent, vigorous, vulgar pleasure, deeply sad and murky of thought.

    This sounds like a book by Nicola Barker, author of Wide Open; a book that yielded all those pleasures on a first reading and many more on a second. It doesn’t sound like a book by the Other Nicola Barker, author of the Burley Cross Postbox Theft.

    My confidence in her led me to buy Burley Cross, unlooked inside, in hardback. I have suffered the Barker-reading Yips ever since.

    Burley Cross was overwhelmed by whimsy & eccentric caricatures, not characters. The writing and the voices were monotone. Everyone was breathless, over-excited and over-familiar – even senior policemen writing official reports.

    The heightened unnaturalism of the fundamental contrivance was unbearable. People wrote letters for the post as if chatting online in real time, apologising for having nipped off to pee or to fetch a cloth to mop up coffee. Pick a page, any page, any letter:

    “…No. No. NO! I don’t *believe* this! I don’t … My bottom’s *soaked*! It’s … *aargh*! Remember how I told you about that tiny little hole in my bike seat which sucks up water into the foam padding when it rains so that the next time you sit on it … NOOOO!! I just … I can’t believe I’ve gone and done it again! …”

    Burley Cross was unreadably unnaturally frivolous. Wide Open was nuanced, murky, multilayered and brilliant. Early accounts of The Yips, especially the storyline, made me expect another artificial piece of Burleyesque. I might reconsider on the strength of this review. It sounds as if the writing and the nuances, together with the social comedy and satire, might make this the Missing Link between the two Nicola Barkers.

  4. Thanks for this review, John. I have never read any of Nicola Barker’s books but just got The Yips out of the library and I found the layout, the randomness of the indents, so bizarre, I couldn’t get past the first few pages. I will now try again, instead of taking it straight back to the library! Hard to know, unless you’re told, that this is the way it’s meant to be – although it would be assuming a huge copy-edit failure if I didn’t!

  5. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Aggie, great to hear from you here – yes, Burley Cross Postbox Theft is definitely one of the “frivolous” (her word) ones, and I must admit I don’t have any interest in those. Then again, Clear was one of those too, and Gaskella above loved it – so who knows?

    Tania and Kevin, I hope you like it – second time round for you, Tania! I do remember having similar feelings to you when reading Darkmans – and therefore I knew what to expect this time. In that sense, I suppose I was wrong to say above that nothing can prepare you for Nicola Barker – another Nicola Barker novel can.

  6. Thanks for the review, John.
    After two, somewhat unfulfilled ‘state of the nation’ novels i’ve recently read (Capital by John Lanchester and Gold by Chris Cleave) I have to say I am rather looking forward to reading The Yips.. Novel arrived in the post y’day..

  7. Hi John, what a wonderful review! I will have to get this novel. I’ve read most of Barker’s books and they are just great. I teach some of her stories from “The three buttons trick…”. You can see there in embryonic fashion what she does in her long novels…. thanks!

  8. Like Kevin I admit to being rather daunted by the size, though I note your review has tipped him over which means I now look forward to his review also.

    The characters all seem a bit, well, characterful. Wacky even. I think that’s what puts me off. Not the prose or the murkiness which sound quite appealing (and I do love your alliteration, vital and very valuable). It’s the risk of spending 550 pages with characters every one of whom sounds rather like I’d move table in a pub to get away with them.

    Which sounds like I’m saying I want sympathetic characters, which is of course an irrelevant consideration. It’s more that they all sound so very interesting I’d fear being suffocated by them.

    Hm, my own thoughts are murky. Are you following what I mean John?

  9. I think I am, Max. It’s a hard book to summarise without making it sound, as you say, ‘wacky’ or (worse) ‘whimsical’. I think the key is that Barker treats her characters with respect, so the reader does too. In any event, I think it’s worth a go.

  10. I’ve yet to read Barker, but I ordered this one when it was longlisted for the Booker. It’s still taunting me from the shelf, but now I’m quite keen to read it sooner rather than later.

  11. With one minor quibble (her ‘big’ book before Darkmans was Behindlings) I think you sum up Barker pefectly in your opening – so much so I’ve read it more than once, and I haven’t even read The Yips yet. A great example of a review that tells you not just about the book but about the writer. Thanks.

  12. Thanks for the kind words, 1streading, and with one minor quibble of my own, I did say Wide Open was the ‘big’ book that came two before Darkmans. I omitted Behindlings as it wasn’t shortlisted for or winner of any major award, so it didn’t fit my neat theory…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s