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“A gloriously mad extrapolation”: Nicola Barker’s Goldsmiths Prize-winning novel H(A)PPY

Barker brilliantly evokes a blood-sucked future with therapy-speak language and typographical disruption.

Nicola Barker was awarded the 2017 Goldsmiths Prize for her 12th novel “H(A)PPY” at a ceremony at Foyles in central London on 15 November 2017. The prize, for fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the form”, was co-founded by Goldsmiths University and the New Statesman in 2013 and this year’s shortlist included novels by Sara Baume, Kevin Davey, Jon McGregor, Gwendoline Riley and Will Self. 

Barker, 51, grew up in Cambridgeshire and South Africa and in 2003 was named in Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists list. “H(A)PPY” is set in a technologically advanced future society in which the forever-young inhabitants are “In Balance”, maintained by an all-seeing “System”. Conflict and death are things of the past – but so is narrative, as Mira A discovers when she begins to tell her story.

Here Kevin Barry – who won the Goldsmiths Prize in 2015 for “Beatlebone”, and who judged this year’s prize along with AL Kennedy, Tracey Thorn and Naomi Wood – reflects on Barker’s winning novel.

It feels almost like the whisper of a filthy heresy to say that literature should above all things be fun. The prose might surely deliver little shudders of sensual pleasure. The text might instruct us cannily or enhance our understanding of psychology, of the universe, of life itself. We might swoon into new empathies on the turn of the novelist’s trick. But you know: give us a good time or your book is getting flung at the fucking wall. And there is a very direct correlation, clearly, between the amount of fun being had on the writer’s desk and the amount of fun being experienced by the beloved reader at the far end of the process. There is the biopic version of the tortured writer’s daily struggle, with our hero pacing the study like a caged lion, dripping angst from every genius pore, tearfully balling up the pages and flinging them at the basket – well, no, I don’t want to read that stuff either. One suspects that Nicola Barker is, by contrast, having a lot of fun at her desk.

Her most recent novel, H(A)PPY, is a gloriously mad extrapolation. It takes the strains of a very contemporary language – a language with the inflections of social media blather, of therapy-speak, of management-waft – and it lets that language spin out, further and further, and faster and faster, and onwards into time’s black void, until a new and future world has been whirled into shape, and this world comes to life quite brilliantly. It’s a place enslaved by its technologies; it’s a place terrifyingly bland in its surface dimensions; it’s a kind of blood-sucked world. It’s music is made of pleasantries, and it’s a place where anything even close to emotion is poison.

Line by line, page by page, Barker’s touch is very light, but then somehow great pools of eeriness are opened out, and the novel gains a sense of odd cargo – the reader is aware that strange energies are being towed just beneath the surface of the prose, that the narrative is freighted with mystery and dread. Let it be said also that the novel is a triumph of typographical design, and that there is always narrative purpose to that design.

I think Nicola Barker is incapable of a dull page. Her work has ranged wildly across time and space, across subjects as diverse as 19th century Indian mysticism and golfing anxiety, but it is unified by its spirit of adventure, and by the drive of ambition behind each new, splendidly batty project. She is a truly vocational writer – she writes these books because she has to write them, it’s her purpose, and at the other end of the process, we, the happy readers, receive very clearly a sense of her zeal and ambition, and we can sense too the amount of fun that she’s having.

Nicola Barker interview: “I’m a niche writer and see no harm in it. I like niches”

“H(A)PPY” is published by William Heinemann

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia