Nicola Barker is Our Great Post-Punk Novelist
Brian Castleberry Profiles the Author of Thirteen
"Baffling Innovative" Novels
“I feel like, at some level, we are all outsiders,” Nicola Barker says of the vast array of oddballs and originals who populate her bafflingly innovative thirteen novels. “Society is fluid. But you need to stand outside of a situation, a dilemma, an experience, to truly understand it. That’s what my characters often do. They are inquisitive. They can’t be satisfied by the time or circumstances they are living in.”
It is January in this deadly winter of COVID-19, and we are exchanging emails across the Atlantic—me in Richmond, Virginia, and my literary hero in the town of Faversham, formerly the home of the explosives industry in the UK. Both of us are home-bound, like most everyone else, trying to feel like writers even if we’re spending a lot of our time staring at walls. When I asked her what she’s been up to recently—during Britain’s Tier 5 lockdown—she says she’s done little but “walking and thinking,” though she spends a good deal of time talking by phone to family scattered across the globe.
Our correspondence has been a small miracle for me, as my discovery of Barker’s work a decade ago completely changed the way I write and think about writing. Often, after sending an email, I’ll spend a tortured day thinking of what I could have said that will finally prove that I am a fool (why did I insist on making that corny Bowie joke?), but I find again and again that she responds with effusive grace and a rich supply of advice on writing and life.
Hailed as an “unclassifiable genius” by the Guardian, Barker is a well-known literary figure in Britain. But if she is familiar at all to readers in America, it is often for her 2007 novel Darkmans, a wild and paranoiac book that is both about history and very much about twenty-first century life—and a strong candidate for the eight hundred funniest pages in literature. I ran into the book back in the last recession, during a phase in my life when I was hopping from job to job, rudderless, trying to hold on to some idea that I could be a writer. It challenged everything I’d learned thus far about fiction and pointed me in a new direction, one centered on character and voice and trust in one’s aesthetic obsessions and particularities, on the inner play of consciousness, on the lightning-quick moves of our real lived experience.
The scene-based writing popularized by MFA programs in America, which regularly ignore the lessons of Joyce and Calisher and James, who take consciousness as their subject, seemed suddenly wanting. Maybe I needed a change. Maybe I needed to spend a couple of years trying to write like someone else—someone who takes risks without a net—in order to discover an authentic voice of my own. Darkmans made the short list for the Booker Prize, and she made the long list for the Booker for two other novels, Clear and The Yips. One could call Barker an avant-garde writer, but she looks at her style as something more like play: “I need to feel free. I won’t be constrained. Especially not by the expectations of others or even my own expectations. I am guided by a sense of mischief. I don’t ever sit down to write and think: I’ll use this tone, this accent, this layout…”
In the apocalyptic tension of last summer, hungry for direction, I went back to her books like Darkmans, Behindlings, and The Cauliflower, and found again the joy and freedom I’d discovered in them—as well as a newfound drive to get back to writing. That’s because of her radical approach to character, her ability to bring forth the innermost trickle of doubt and pride and self-deprecation and fear that really sound out a person, really show us who they are. And of course her incredible courage to experiment with what the novel can do. On that front she is part of a very small group indeed. Still, over a career that swings through genres and forms, crashing from laughter to darkness and back again (sometimes in one sentence), she has always been laser-focused on getting to the bottom of people, of individuals, and sort of parading them around, celebrating them, allowing them to be themselves. There’s something about Barker’s writing that helps me to see past the chaos and spectacle of contemporary life to who we all are inside: frail, bumbling, a little lost.“Fiction should be life-changing, life-shattering. It isn’t just characters and stories. It is life and death. Truth and meaning.”
When I tell her about what an influence Darkmans had on me, she recalls the intense work she put into the book over five years, the last two of which she spent on a strict media diet, avoiding narratives of any kind aside from a trashy TV show about people looking for homes abroad called A Place in the Sun. She says she aimed to write in “a kind of vacuum,” in order to “keep the mind perfectly focused and absolutely unstimulated by anything but the work.” It was an effort she now laughs off as deluded, though when a project gets moving, she falls into phases very much like that one, if only shorter. She describes her normal process as simply writing in the gaps between life. “Everything else is prioritized: dinner, dog walk, hoovering.” She has held on to an ancient computer that doesn’t connect to the internet as her principle writing tool, changing the font she types with each time she starts a new book. She also fills notebooks with her ideas and sketches for a project, keeping these as mementos long after a book is finished, art pieces that catalogue her thinking over the years.
Barker was born in Ely (pronounced ee-lee), outside Cambridge, and at the age of nine, emigrated with her family to South Africa, where the brutality of apartheid came as an immediate shock to her young mind: “I was suddenly exposed to all the awful contradictions and hypocrisies of a world in which value was predicated by skin-tone. It felt so wrong. The personal became political for me, then. I learned that you had to choose sides, that you had to speak your truth, come what may. My work is always agenda-driven.” There is a moral force that runs through Barker’s novels, as comic as they may be. One never loses sight of the fact that this is actually a very serious writer, for all the playfulness. Her urge to write developed out of that time in South Africa and she sees the central goal of authorship as one of truth-seeking and truth-telling. “Above my desk I have a beautiful painting by Michael Ayrton circa 1960. It’s of Cassandra, speaking her truth and being driven insane by what she is saying. The painting is both scary and empowering. Fictions should feel exactly like that: compulsive, terrifying, necessary.”
As we exchange emails through January, life keeps happening. Even as I work up my notes for this essay, there is an insurrection in DC, an impeachment, an inauguration. COVID worsens in Britain and in South Africa, where Barker still has family, and my parents in Oklahoma test positive, making me a nervous wreck. Barker begins checking in with me every day or so to see how they are doing. These notes branch out into wonderfully insightful advice on how to stay sensitive to fiction and life, how to keep up one’s craft in a dizzying world. She often reminds me that every person, and so every character, is still an individual with a soul and with a full inner life, that it is the purpose of a writer to always be open to humanity. “The sheer loveliness of otherness, of difference,” she says. “That’s my core philosophy. And it doesn’t really matter how I create, just that I do, and that I encourage others to do the same. To feel that gorgeous thrill.”
There’s an openness to her outlook as a writer, and, well, as a person. I begin to understand not just her philosophy, but the logic of her narrative style. “I’m not sure why,” she explains, “but I’ve always lived in the present. It’s just how I seem to think and to exist. So I only really care about now.” This focus on now is more than just her talent for capturing contemporary culture, and more than just an outlook on life. It’s at the heart of her aesthetics. Barker has a very particular way of stopping time, or slowing it, so that we can see more of the observations and re-evaluations of her characters than real time would allow. It’s not a Proustian meandering (nothing against Proust!), but rather like the overlapping editing of a fast-paced action movie, a Die Hard of the inner life.
From early on, in her stories collected in The Three-Button Trick, one can pick up on a disinterest in the middle-class lives of so-called “literary” characters. Hers tend to be, as mentioned above, outsiders, obsessives, wanderers—and often, at the very least, they hold down some sort of job you haven’t seen in fiction, or hustle somehow, or in the case of Sri Ramakrishna in her fragmented masterpiece The Cauliflower, live only for the ecstatic experience of something holy. I asked her about this book, which moves in multiple directions at once, with overlapping voices and a mix of fact and fiction. “The narrative is chaotic,” she says, “because I’m trying to describe a character who was out of time, who celebrated chaos, who broke all conventions. You can’t hope to describe someone who lives in history but also beyond it in a straight-forward way, can you? The narrative form needs to describe the meaning of the text in the same way that your choice of words or images does.”
In 2017, she won the Goldsmiths Prize for the novel H(A)PPY, set in a dystopia where storytelling as we know it has been eradicated, language and thoughts are monitored, and our narrator Mira A will accidentally stumble into narrative, causing the whole machinery of the novel (even the text itself) to veer toward an unthinkable breakdown—some pages exploding with words as the narrator loses control. The book is a technical feat, showing Barker test the limits of narrative and risk everything to get to the truth of her story and character. It has a challenging, mind-bending effect on readers, and it turns out to have caused a similar upheaval for the author herself.
“As I wrote it I felt everything falling away around me,” she says, “the entire construct of my life, my relationship with words, my grasp of meaning. It all crashed.” The book made her reevaluate what the novel is here for as a literary form and where her own art was headed after that reevaluation. At the same time it clarified for her the stakes of fiction: “It should write you,” she explained. “It should be life-changing, life-shattering. It isn’t just characters and stories. It is life and death. Truth and meaning.”How can we create fictions which pretend that there are always solutions, that there is actually closure, that life isn’t unpredictable and illogical much of the time?”
Her latest book, the hilarious novella I Am Sovereign, culminates in a dramatization of this crisis: the rapid dismantling of the very story we’re reading. The book begins simply, with a mother, a daughter, and a real estate agent going to see a home that’s for sale. Over the course of twenty minutes (or 209 pages), we dive into the inner maelstrom of these characters as well as that of the awkward homeowner (his job? making teddy bears in a home factory) as mysterious events (an oyster shell falling from the sky in the ‘burbs?) and unexpected connections lead us through the story and then past it, into the playful but also deadly serious place where Nicola Barker crafts her fiction.
I wonder if part of the joy of reading books that challenge our sense of reality now—when our sense of reality is so challenged in everyday life—has to do with feeling less alone in our conundrum. Is so-called avant-garde literature just about naming and clarifying what we already see in front of us, but want to ignore? “We impose structure and routine on our lives simply to reassure ourselves,” she says. “But the world is pretty crazy. How can we create fictions which pretend that there are always solutions, that there is actually closure, that life isn’t unpredictable and illogical much of the time?”
She lives in the top two floors of a very old building in the middle of town, where from her kitchen window she can watch the goings-on of the post office. When big trucks pass by, the whole place shivers. In good weather, even during these lockdown times, she can “clamber up a ladder and out onto the roof and see for miles.” Prolific as she has been in these last 25 years, she’s right there with the rest of us, slogging along through 2020 and into 2021, living in what feels like “suspended animation.” She’s been at this long enough to know that “ideas and enthusiasm will infuse into fiction when the time is right,” says she needs to feel passionate about a project to really dive into it, and has learned to wait for the moment when that passion really takes hold. “There’s a sense of nagging anxiety,” she says about the less-productive era of quarantine, “like you are halfway down the street and then suddenly remember you’ve left the oven on.”
“I’m interested in the un-knowableness of a thing,” Barker says, “the grey areas, the transitional. And I have a horror of convention. It’s not generally spoken or even fully digested. But it’s there. I’m post-punk. It’s at the very core of who I am both as a person and creatively.” This post-punk approach actually makes a lot of sense. Her books have an edginess to them, a postmodern self-referentiality without all the theoretical navel-gazing—something DIY and yet very informed, like a band who met at art school, equally at home in galleries or in the street. And “un-knowableness” seems to me like a running theme in her work, and one of the many ways she captures contemporary life so well. We’re often meeting characters who are not only seeking after some unknowable truth or idea, but themselves split between notions of who they are, their inner lives a minefield of rapid reversals and second-guesses. She uses an incredibly close narrative voice, and this fits her aesthetic motivations well:
At the heart of everything I write is a conversation with my unconscious. It fascinates me that we are often strangers to ourselves, that bits of us survive what life hurls our way, while other parts disappear. They fall out of focus. But they continue to exist. People, the human mind…it’s so mysterious and so extraordinary. My unconscious represents my inner child – and the bit of me which will not be curtailed. When I sit down to write, that’s who comes out to play. And it is play. It’s fun. An exploration.
Barker moved to Faversham on a whim, interested at first because it is the setting of one of her favorite plays, Arden of Faversham, about a mayor killed by his wife and her lover, and the home where this true story took place is still standing. She takes walks along a creek and into marshes and farmland, a spare and atmospheric setting, the town behind her “a wonderful, friendly, eccentric little place.” Across a tributary of the Thames lies Sheppey, the setting of one of her most successful early novels, Wide Open. Life in North Kent affords her time and space to think about what fiction means to her:
I live inside this paradox which says – at once: fiction is an escape for me, a form of life-avoidance, a fabrication, but then (at the same time) fiction is the truest, the most beautiful and the most honest place in which I could ever hope to dwell. This paradox has hung over my work in recent years. I’ve felt the weight of it. Can I live without fiction? Does fiction stop me from living? Is fiction my life? Should it be?
I’m not sure I have any answers to these questions, or the more dire ones facing us outside books, but I do keep coming back to this concept of fiction as “the truest, the most beautiful and the most honest place,” and these days, it seems like more of a manifesto than I’d previously considered, at least a way to keep writing through the darkness.