Fourth Estate, 560pp, £18.99
The Yips is a novel about skin, both literally and figuratively. Valentine (Vee) Wickers is a tattooist specialising in trompe l’oeil hair effects on the pube-less vaginas of Asian women. Vee is haunted by her father’s legacy of Nazi memorabilia – including a human-skin wallet, complete with tattooed identification number. She is also an agoraphobic who only ventures out when the Muslim Milah persuades her to try on her burqa. Similarly, golf pro Stuart Ransom has the yips, jitters that attack on the putting green. He hides his declining career behind his self-aggrandising patter. “But what about the individual inside all the spiel?” wonders his caddy, Gene.
Despite this philosophising, The Yips is also a farce – in the true, theatrical sense, because most of the story is told as dialogue. This entails a set of challenges usually specific to drama. For example, back stories must be related in speech. Sheila improbably tells her husband of many years about “Anne Sexton – one of the women poets I wrote my dissertation on at Oxford”. This, though, is a minor hiccup in comparison to Ransom’s Wikipedia-style precis of his career. Barker is understandably nervous about her formal constraint and tries, unsuccessfully, to turn it into a comic virtue by drawing attention to it: “By the time Ransom’s potted biography has concluded . . .”
The external, omniscient narration reads mostly like (very florid) stage direction, which brings us to another problem: comic timing. Farce relies on speed. Translate action into words and the loss of pace can be fatal: “Ransom ebulliently high-fives [Stan]. The high-five is accompanied by a sharp tearing sound (as one of the jacket’s armpits finally gives way). The golfer’s brows rise (his expression a combination of admiration and surprise – as if he thinks the teen has just discharged a loud fart). Stan returns his gaze – slightly bemused (plainly thinking the same about the golfer).”
Potentially funny onstage (if fart jokes float your boat) but clunky on the page. Note the illogical parentheses: they’re endemic, disturbing the rhythm of the prose. Also baffling is Barker’s decision to indent some but not all of the direct speech. Likewise, her insistence on separating multiple adjectives with commas: grammatically correct but rarely faithful to speech. Three examples (of hundreds): “The big fight broke out with those lippy, Sikh kids”; “I was pretty much completely, fuckin’ feral”; “She was ridiculously, high-maintenance . . .” In a dialogue-heavy novel, failure to reproduce basic spoken cadences is a real drawback.
When Barker does take over from her characters, she’s desperate to fit as much into her airtime as possible. Some statistics: in 560 pages, there are just 75 occasions on which a character is allowed to “say” something. Instead, there are 131 “mutters”, 117 “murmurs”, 73 “persists”, not to mention all the reiteration, elucidation, rumination, interjection, opining, surmising, essaying, avowing, concurring, clucking (18!), averring, demurring. Wooden spoon, page 117: “She rapidly supersedes him.” Opine, aver, essay, espy, disport, transmogrify: a fruity lexicon derived from Wodehouse (whose golfing stories are funnier than anything in The Yips).
Barker also employs stoned imagery recalling Martin Amis and David Foster Wallace: “Her mother gazes at Valentine in much the same way a slightly tipsy shepherd might gaze at the eviscerated corpse of a stray sheep on a neighbouring farmer’s land (a gentle watercolour wash of concern, querulousness and supreme indifference).”
This kind of humour is hard to pull off and Barker is not as good as her influences. Compare Ransom’s “large, red spot . . . erupting – like a brave, little sunrise – from between the clefts [sic] of his chin” to Charles Highway’s “fine double-yolker” in The Rachel Papers or the “Big Boy” that he “savages with filthy fingernails” – for five minutes.
Barker is often likened to Amis but Foster Wallace is the more significant influence. (Both Infinite Jest and The Rachel Papers are mentioned in The Yips.) Barker also likes neurotic, hyper-articulate characters and like Foster Wallace her style is a mix of cartoon silliness and serious, even sentimental meditation. Her novel Darkmans (2007), shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was praised for these dramatic tone changes and rightly so. Though longer than The Yips, Darkmans is a much tighter novel, with a strong narrative voice and a mischievous plot that manipulates the characters almost as masterfully as Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark.
Both novels rely on suspense, keeping the reader in the dark for hundreds of pages at a time. In Darkmans, the clues are dealt out cleverly and fairly but The Yips plays for cheap thrills by alluding to crucial information then refusing to reveal it. “It’s not the accident I’m talking about,” Noel snarls, “as well you know. It’s all that crap that came with it.” Nudge. We don’t discover what he’s what talking about for 80 pages. Another favourite “trick” is to open a section in the middle of a phone conversation, report only half of the dialogue and withhold the name of the other caller. The reader has to run to keep up but when you get there, it isn’t worth the effort.
Claire Lowdon is assistant editor of Areté