IN even her darkest and most disturbing books, there is a blistering streak of comic energy in Nicola Barker’s novels. Behindlings featured an unforgettable dinner party, where the demonic Wesley cooked a heron and the host, Josephine, became incapable on apricot brandy.
by Nicola Barker
Fourth Estate, 548pp, £18.99
Darkmans, for which she was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, boasted a ne’er-do-well builder obsessed with getting a name for his company that would appear above his rivals, A Priori Builders, in a telephone directory and the rest of the grotesque Broad family, the matriarch of whom was memorably described as “Jabba the Hutt with a womb, chronic asthma and a council flat”. The Yips, her latest novel, like Burley Cross Postbox Theft, Clear and Five Miles From Outer Hope, is an entertainment: the more sinister, troubling aspects of her work are kept in check (though they seethe away under the surface), and the gift for deliriously funny writing is given full rein.
“Yips” appears in the Oxford English Dictionary and is defined in the book’s epigraph as “nervousness or tension that causes an athlete to fail to perform effectively, especially in missing short putts in golf”. That air of misfiring, highly-strung anxiety suffuses most of the characters in the novel, but it is appropriately concentrated around the figure of Stuart Ransom, a professional golfer whose career has dramatically imploded, but not sufficiently to dent his hubristic self-confidence. As he says to another character: “I need to be the big dog – the biggest dog – win or lose. And if I’m gonna lose, then I’ll piss all over the fairways … I’ll lose worse than anyone ever lost before. I’ll make an art out of it.”
The Yips opens with Ransom getting gently pickled in a hotel bar in Luton. It’s a little masterpiece of badinage and misdirection. Ransom chats away with Gene and Jen, the bar staff, and we learn that Gene has had cancer seven times, is descended from a legendary palm-reader and is preternaturally good. Jen is quite the lippy-est, most sly, manipulating piece of charm to appear in a novel for a long while, with “three E’s at A-level but a PhD in bullshit”. Jen is a windup merchant of Olympian proportion, and Ransom’s veneer of bored bonhomie begins to crack as she elucidates her theory of selfish and non-selfish sports, golf being the paradigmatic selfish sport, and how the categories are comparable to masturbation versus sex – leading Ransom to bellow “masturbation is sex”. The scenes in the hotel bar are intercut with scenes in a nearby house, where the agoraphobic, Kali-worshipping tattooist Valentine is struggling to deal with her mother, who thinks she is French and has become insatiably lascivious since an accident.
Ransom remains the white dwarf of egomania around which the other lives orbit, and Barker’s cast of eccentrics widens to include Ransom’s heavily pregnant Jamaican manager, her environmental protester sister (who has a major grievance against golf courses), an unconventional Muslim sex therapist and his religious fundamentalist wife, and Gene’s wife, a Church of England vicar longing for the days when she wrote feminist literary theory about the work of Anne Sexton. We learn more about Valentine; in particular that her late father was the local far-right activist and Nazi sympathiser, and that he and her brother spent years suing anyone they could after their mother’s personality-changing accident: caused, as you may have guessed, by an errant golf-ball propelled from the club of Stuart Ransom.
With the gloriously baroque characters constantly in danger of lighting out on a frolic of their own, The Yips is held together with a precisely choreographed plot: in some ways it is reminiscent of the later farces of Joe Orton, or the novels of PG Wodehouse. When Ransom is leafing through Gene’s book collection, Barker winks at the reader when he ponders a line from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War – “simulated chaos is given birth from control”. Chaos does descend, with Jen appointing herself its harbinger: “I’m visualizing myself as some kind of toxic, intergalactic super-being”, she says, “who’s been dropped on to earth from another galaxy by a mischievous deity. We have a completely different moral outlook in my part of the stratosphere. More arbitrary, more stringent, more sophisticated.” (A lesser writer, incidentally, would scrupulously avoid the repetition of galaxy in the previous quote; Barker makes a virtue of such felicitous gaucheries).
Just because it is often laugh-out-loud hilarious doesn’t stop The Yips from being a book with serious concerns. If Darkmans was haunted by the ghost of history in the shape of the malevolent, mediaeval jester Scogin, The Yips is haunted by the ghost of celebrity. In the absence of success, Ransom makes do with notoriety; his manager and PR person capitalise on catastrophe. The almost-saintly Gene is famous for his fund-raising, his multiple jobs as barman, toilet attendant and electricity meter reader, to the extent that his selflessness becomes his identity. Even poor Valentine – Barker points out that agoraphobia is literally fear of the agora, the market of commodities and ideas in Ancient Greece – is famous for not wanting to be famous.
The Yips also addresses one of the most fundamentally difficult questions in fiction: how to depict happiness and goodness. Samuel Richardson’s early attempt, Sir Charles Grandison, is the first in a string of failures; in Henry de Montherlant’s famous aphorism, “happiness writes in white ink on a white page”. There is a psychologically astute and beautifully moving point where Jen muses that when one is happy, the question “am I happy?” will arise, short-circuiting the actual emotion. In a book so replete with mistakes and misbehaviours, it is only Gene who does something ethically wrong. At the book’s half-way point there is a climactic decision and “no amount of bleating or praying or willing or cajoling can halt it or stall it or call it back”. That transgression can lead to redemption is the book’s humane and kindly trajectory.
Barker’s oeuvre is one of the high points of contemporary English writing; her work dares and dances while her peers plod and preach. There is a cunning moment when Valentine’s tattoo work is under discussion. Jen reveals that Valentine is an “ultra-realist”, even tattooing convincing hair on sufferers of alopecia. “She’s like ultra-ultra real. Some people love what she does, others think she’s completely whacko.” I absolutely love the absolutely whacko thing that Nicola Barker does.