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2 August 2017

H(A)PPY: when a utopia is just a dystopia that’s kidding itself

Nicola Barker's novel creates a sort of wellness republic, like a year-round Burning Man.

By Leo Robson

The English novelist Nicola Barker began publishing in the mid-1990s, hit her stride almost immediately, and achieved something like fame in the early years of this century.

Wide Open, modestly received in 1998, won the biennial International Dublin Impac Award in 2000, and her state-of-the-nation-ish satire Clear: A Transparent Novel (2004) – the title referred in part to David Blaine’s glass box – made the Man Booker longlist. Then came the sort-of-thriller Darkmans (2007), a runner-up for the Booker, 850 (sans serif) pages that began: “Kane dealt prescription drugs in Ashford…”

In the decade since, her work has been self-consciously off-trail, kooky, even minor, though she has never sought to write the novel – the obvious, stentorian, statement-y novel – only the Nicola Barker novel, which tends to be formally itchy, brazenly extrovert, present-tense, and heavy on italics.

Barker seems to find writing fiction as natural as breathing, and there’s a strong imaginative streak to almost everything she does. Inventing a world from scratch seems an obvious strategy, and her twelfth novel, H(A)PPY, is founded on a tickling premise – a dystopia constructed almost exclusively from utopian conceits. At an unspecified point, the Altruistic Powers saved mankind from “the Floods and the Fires and the Plagues and the Death Cults”, forging in their place a sort of wellness republic, a year-round Burning Man.

Desire is over. The Ego has departed. Everyone is equally creative, though the word “Creatives” still exists. (Other stubborn relics include “disambiguation” and “tipping point”.) Everyone is psychologically – and chemically – “In Balance”. Resources are infinite. Still, The System is not free from anxiety and, this being a Nicola Barker novel, the banishing of bad vibes assumes a typographic dimension. When the novel’s narrator, the musician Mira A, writes the phrase “flawed religious concept”, “flawed” is rendered in blue, “religious” in purple.

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Like Tim Parks in his novel The Server, which took place in a Buddhist retreat, Barker must find a way of injecting narrative dynamics into a setting defined by absence of conflict. The obvious – only? – solution is to engineer a rupture of the norm. Beth, in The Server, discovered a diary that prompted the return of her old, un-Buddha-like self, and Barker introduces Mira just as she begins to “oscillate” (the term used for those no longer in balance). While researching acoustic cutaways on the Information Stream, Mira encounters an image – from a period that still recognised age and geography – of a prepubescent girl and a pear-shaped, metal-stringed classical guitar, originating somewhere in South America. Mira begins to feel haunted and – just as bad – intrigued by the idea of life before the Altruistic Powers.

But where Beth in Parks’s novel simply failed to endure the rigours of a retreat, Mira’s predicament emerges from the paradoxes of her scenario: the “kink” in her perfection is really a flaw in The System. Liberation from desire is a form of desire – and there may be things we want (such as art) that help to restore balance, or else manifest fruitful disorder. The insistence on calm can itself become hysterical, mantra-like: “I am open. I am humble. I am appreciative. I am grounded.” Positive attributes imply negative attributes. Prescriptions, however gently voiced, entail a hierarchy. “When I say ‘they tell us’ I actually mean ‘we tell us’,” Mira says, but of course the slip tells us more than the amendment. A utopia is just a dystopia that’s kidding itself.

The image of the girl and the guitar opens the doors of perception, along with the intellectual floodgates, and the reader would be forgiven for feeling lost in the deluge – Paraguayan history lessons (via the guitarist Agustín Barrios); metalinguistic discourse (with special reference to Guarani); mathematical symbols; lurches into Latin. Barker doesn’t go as far down the rabbit hole as J M Coetzee in The Schooldays of Jesus, another story of classical music furnishing possibilities of escape from a banal post-capitalist paradise. But there’s still plenty here to leave you pondering – for example, whether, when presented with a six-page slab of repeated sentences, you are expected to trawl through every word, the better to engage with, or empathetically share, the narrator’s aching head.

At one point, Mira explains that her name was borrowed from “a giant, red star”, but it surely bears an echo of Miranda, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, whose exclamation on first witnessing Alonso and Ferdinand gave the novelist Aldous Huxley and a fair few headline-writers the not-yet-ironic phrase “brave new world”. In the absence of any father figure – or grandfather-figure, as in Ali Smith’s recent Autumn, in which her Miranda figure is shown reading Huxley’s novel – the Prospero role is here assumed by Barker herself, and the parallel is fairly close: creative to excess, more than capable of abusing her omnipotence, blurring the border between genius and dazzle, and bringing, along with admiration, a degree of relief when – following the un-Barker-ish word “silence” – she takes her bow. 

Nicola Barker
William Heinemann, 304pp, £20

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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue