Nicola Barker’s I Am Sovereign: an ingenious novel on the theme of selfhood

Using an elaborate conceptual framework, the novel takes place during a mildly fractious 20-minute house viewing.

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Nicola Barker’s ingenious new book – her follow-up to H(A)PPY, which received the Goldsmiths Prize – takes place during a mildly fractious 20-minute house viewing in Llandudno, north Wales. From this set-up Barker spins a series of variations on the theme of selfhood: what hampers its growth, the vocabularies best-suited to describing it, how it might be found when denied or recovered when lost.

Though Barker has adopted the kind of time-frame associated with her near namesake Nicolson Baker, whose early novels portrayed an office worker’s lunch break (The Mezzanine) and a new father feeding a baby (Room Temperature), she has allowed herself a greater variety of points of view and set her sights a little higher, or anyway further left-field. Where Baker was taking a form of realist monologue to its logical – if manic – conclusion, Barker serves up a mixture of experiment and statement, part postmodern comedy, part spiritual credo. It takes as its raw material the fear and panic, anxiety and suspicion, depression and despair experienced by a man who wants to sell his house (Charles), an estate agent trying to help him sell it (Avigail), the child of the prospective buyer (Ying Yue), and, via moments of authorial intrusion and a brilliant confessional finale, the novelist responsible for creating them.

The book exhibits Barker’s gifts as a psychologist. There’s a devastating flashback in which we learn that Charles, now 40 and a designer of teddy bears, was bullied by family members for wetting the bed, a habit provoked by his reluctance to make nocturnal toilet visits after he was first slapped for using the flush while others were sleeping, then mocked for neglecting to do so. These days the person damning him whether he does or doesn’t is Charles himself, or at least his Toxic Super Ego, which he hopes to silence with the help of an online life coach.

The other characters, though less dominant, are drawn with similar care. Avigail was raised a Hasidic Jew, in an atmosphere where children “were sometimes listened to yet rarely heard”, and escaped through self-starvation, silence, “a defiant holding-in” and by confining most of her human interaction to the realm of haggling. Ying Yue has been overwhelmed by her mother Wang Shu – who treats her as simply an extension of her ego – and so has responded by making herself invisible. Avigail and Ying Yue, in their different ways, derive comfort from the videos of the (real) YouTube influencer Lucy Molloy.

I Am Sovereign places this agonised trio within an elaborate conceptual framework. Barker is intrigued by the ways that an environment can become a trap, the environments in question being a house, a family, a community, a mind and, with increasing explicitness, a book. The tools of metafiction aren’t used to give the reader a wink and a nudge, a reminder of what activity they’re engaged in, but to interrogate the basis of fiction – the activity that Barker is engaged in. It emerges that the task of evoking the characters’ struggles to muster a sense of “order, of connectedness, of coherence” is providing Barker with a way to do more or less the same, following a period of personal and artistic crisis that coincided with the writing of H(A)PPY. One available escape route, it seems, is to write a novella, as opposed to the booby-trapped, grandstanding, all-answering “novel”.

Barker isn’t the first writer to use postmodern devices to explore questions about selfhood, but she diverges from most of her predecessors in rejecting the analogy of the self as “fiction”. She believes strongly in the self as an idea and an object of study, and I Am Sovereign extends an open hand to numerous maligned or resisted phenomena: literary postmodernism, neurolinguistic programming, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the I Ching, the self-styled “guru”.

“Can’t fiction be exquisitely paradoxical?” the author-narrator asks at one point, “paradox” being little more than the acknowledgment that our inherited categories are flawed, a matter of convenience. Everything about this boundary-blurring novella implies the answer: yes! The self-conscious is an ally of the sincere, farce of philosophy, impudence of grace, irony of faith, the trite of the true. And Barker’s method torpedoes the cliché of mysticism as tranquil. I Am Sovereign is at once popping with italics and parentheses and typographic play – what she calls, in one aside, her “ebullient ‘style’” – and also steeped in the everyday. When Charles and Avigail aren’t wrestling with their desire for spiritual autonomy and freedom from the past, they are bickering about the best way to dry clothes. (As Jack Kornfield put it in the title of his guide to Buddhist Enlightenment: “After the ecstasy, the laundry.”)

I Am Sovereign isn’t a wholly satisfying piece of work, which might seem fitting for a book that pits the virtues of the “good enough” against bogus and dangerous “perfection”, though the reason appears to go deeper. Barker has always specialised in both the big and little novel. In the past, this has been the product of her taste and gift for varied forms, or just the need to dispatch a niggling idea in the midst of a longer project. The new book seems more significantly incomplete and transitional, a palate-cleanser or deck-clearer, a metafictional novella that has enabled Barker to examine and relocate her fiction-writing urge. So I Am Sovereign embodies the quest that it portrays – the title-mantra belongs to the author as well as the characters – and renders the next stage in this remarkable writer’s journey a more than usually enticing prospect. 

I Am Sovereign
Nicola Barker
William Heinemann, 224pp, £12.99

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 02 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special