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15 November 2017updated 24 Feb 2021 6:49pm

“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.

By Kevin Barry

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.

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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

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