How did Nicola Barker end up choosing Burley Cross in West Yorkshire – ‘a tiny, ridiculously affluent, ludicrously puffed-up moorside village stuffed to capacity with spoilt second-home owners, Southerners, the “artistic”’ – as the setting for her new novel? After two collections of droll Angela-Carterish short stories and two brisk, borderline surreal novels, Reversed Forecast (1994) and Small Holdings (1995), came Wide Open (1998), the story of a twinned pair of damaged men, in which she loosened the prose, broadened the scope and heightened the feeling. It’s a book which protectively nurses its wounded protagonists along while snarling at the comfortable or the insufficiently harrowed reader:
Laura had imagined herself to be in love with Nathan … Truly in love. A dizzy, silly, confusing, confounding love … Love. Secret and hairy and cinnamon-flavoured. A hot sharp-shooting sherbert love. A mishy-mushy, hishy-hushy, splishy-sploshy kind of love. But the love had been unreciprocated … and left behind in its stead were only suds and offal and litter and a nasty, dirty bath ring which encircled Laura’s heart and made all her deepest, sweetest sensations of yesteryear seem like something empty and ugly and pathetic.
Having unstoppered this taunting, incantatory rhythm, as untiringly hostile as a Goldberg-McCann duet from The Birthday Party, Barker has become a writer of long and garrulous novels, which she likes to alternate with shorter, less obviously ambitious work. The brief, lovely, Salingeresque coming-of-age tale Five Miles from Outer Hope (2000) preceded her next big one, Behindlings (2002); Clear (2004), a furious defence of David Blaine’s 44-day exhibition of hunger artistry at Tower Bridge, interrupted the composition of Darkmans (2007); and Burley Cross Postbox Theft was conceived and delivered during the writing of The Yips, out soon, which seems likely to continue the pattern. In that sense it’s a demob-happy postcard sent by a novelist on her holidays. In another sense, Barker has arrived at a crossroads. Simultaneously the most adversarial of novelists and the mildest, she has a weakness for her characters that warms and softens her work, and it’s beginning to thicken and curdle into a general fug of Dickensian benevolence. Burley Cross – ‘ludicrously puffed-up’, ‘ridiculously affluent’ – represents the headquarters of the opposition for Barker. But in this very enjoyable, utterly toothless and non-urgent comic novel, fondness – it turns out – is all. Wearing a wry grin and indulgently shaking her head, Barker tours her village of fools like F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri being wheeled round his asylum, bestowing benedictions on the lunatics and smilingly forgiving them.
The novel consists of 26 letters stolen from the village postbox, bookended with correspondence between the policemen attempting to solve the crime. Aside from the bookends there isn’t any back-and-forth, so it’s not so much an epistolary novel as a sequence of turns or monologues. There’s a rock musician who complains that his ghost-writer has destroyed the genius of his memoirs; there’s a pretentious police translator claiming to provide ‘SOMETHING ABOVE AND BEYOND’, over and above what might generally be considered ‘a standard translation service’; there’s a Sunday novelist who is writing to bother a thriller-writer with an ‘exclusive extract’ from his own manuscript; there’s an old widow with her elegy for her cat, killed by a car. The rock musician is predictably deluded (‘I actually remember saying something really insightful – really profound – about Nostradamus at one point. Definitely put that in’), the translator predictably gets everything wrong, the ‘exclusive extract’ is predictably abysmal, the elegy for the cat predictably excruciating. As one of the policemen says, ‘to say Burley Cross is “Middle England writ large” would be like saying Stilton is a “dairy product with blue bits running through it” (i.e. an understatement).’
Barker unblushingly shrugs off the anachronistic nature of the whole conceit with a wink or two (‘Am reduced to using snail mail because of pesky virus on the Mac’ etc) and, in a similarly brazen spirit, scarcely bothers to ventriloquise her correspondents, who all sound a little like themselves and a lot like their creator, and many of whom (‘I only … No. No. NO! I don’t believe this! I don’t … My bottom’s soaked! It’s … aaargh!’) don’t even sound like they’re writing at all. As such, Burley Cross Postbox Theft is really one long stand-up routine, much of which you could call ‘inventive’ in that it manages to compile a large agglomeration of colourful details. But actual comic inventiveness – the complex plotting of multiplying ironies – is a little thin on the ground, and although about half of it knits satisfyingly together, that means that about half of it doesn’t.
And yet: whole swathes of this book are irresistible simply because of Barker’s delight at her own keyboard. PC Roger Topping is outlining how the theft of the post actually happened:
Burley Cross High Street … Miss Squire inspects the postbox … She kicks it, gently, with a peremptory toe. The door caves in a little … Incredible! Perhaps her luck is turning at last! She goes over to her car and grabs the first sharp object she can find – a plastic knife and fork (which she’d earlier used to devour a takeaway M&S red onion and feta salad – this is pure speculation, she may’ve just used a stray screwdriver or a handy Swiss army knife, or the salad may actually have been tuna-based) – then returns to the ailing postbox and …
The tuna-based salad, which renders the speaker insane, is pure self-indulgence, an excess which renders the author mildly insane too. There’s a Gogolian needlessness about it: reasonably funny in itself, but as a description of the writer’s own cackling momentum, completely winning. Like Dudley Moore, Barker is a comedian who charms an audience most when laughing at her own jokes. The delight taken is funnier than the joke:
I mean of what earthly use is the man?! He’s just a huge, forlorn elk, a tragic bison, lumbering about the place in that improbably gigantic pair of perpetually squeaking loafers of his like some heavily tranquilised mastodon … his massive, clumsy white hands flailing through the air like a couple of poisoned doves in the final throes of agony … Those strange, watery grey eyes – like a pair of suffocating squid trapped inside a greasy bowl full of slowly congealing albumen …
And on and on for pages. There’s just no closing down someone in such good humour; a good humour which is unprecedented for Barker. She has been widely praised before as funny, but isn’t ‘funny’ just a free gift in those adjectival litanies baggy novels like Behindlings and Darkmans always engender (‘restless’, ‘unflagging’, ‘funny’, ‘teeming’, ‘joyously untidy’ etc) and a lazy synonym for ‘absurdist’ or ‘whimsical’? In Darkmans, being funny means either the adoption of an all-pervading heavy-handed High Style (‘“You’re knocking all the bubbles out of my Pepsi.” Beede’s knee instantly stopped its jogging. Kane took a quick swig of the imperilled beverage,’ where ‘imperilled beverage’, a phrase nobody other than Jeeves would ever use, is meant to be bathetically mock-heroic) or effortfully exuberant dialogue: ‘“We Broads got class, yeah? We got breedin’! We got pedigree … just like the fuckin’ dog-meat! Like Chum! Like all those natty little mutts at Crufts. We’re up there, mate …” “Ding-dong!” she hollered, her gleeful voice echoing down the corridor. “Ding-bloomin’-dong!”’ There isn’t any real situational comedy in Darkmans, because the comedy is not really intrinsic to the book. As in Pynchon, ‘zingy’ dialogue strains to stave off an encroaching gloom but comes over only as a desperate jauntiness because the mood isn’t light but elegiac and, thanks to John Scogin, the 15th-century jester who haunts the book, malicious. Barker seems to identify with Scogin’s sense of humour, which is everything she wants her novel to be – disruptive, chaotic, violent, gnomic but not funny.
The suspicion is that Barker has a different kind of talent, lighter than her own intelligence might want it to be. She seems happier with less to say. Although she has a talent for plotting, she has an anti-talent for the expository dialogue with which she brings the plot to us: open Darkmans at any page and you will not be more than 400 words from the formulation ‘he frowned’ or ‘she scowled’ or ‘he shrugged’. (‘She gazed over at him, frowning’: page 700. ‘Kelly frowned, confused,’ ‘he frowned’: page 702. ‘Gary frowned,’ page 703. ‘He frowned … his frown deepened’: page 704.) People do all this frowning and scowling because there is so much ‘Wait, are you saying that … ?’ or ‘What do you mean?’, which is because the plot is being strung out, which is because Darkmans doesn’t have that much to say about its own obscurities. Liberated from this into the first person, Barker instantly doubles in speed, and with the speed comes a lightness. Five Miles from Outer Hope (also in the first person) and Burley Cross Postbox Theft squeeze things in where Darkmans and Behindlings eke things out: they share a carefree sensibility; they are unshutuppable. Burley Cross Postbox Theft’s emblem or animating spirit is the Irish Setter who has escaped from a car boot and is now running wild on the moors above the uptight village, a big, beautiful, daft red dog killing sheep and having the time of its life: it’s a self-portrait by an author happy to be off the leash.
Nicola Barker is Dickensian not so much because she is a maverick recorder or caricaturist of oddballs and grotesques, but because her sensibility is starkly oppositional: there are the bad guys (the middle classes) and the good (the marginal but rich-in-life). She cares a lot. In eight novels she has never repeated herself: it may be that she’s hardly started. If she can allow that hers is primarily a talent which works better in a benign rather than a combative mood, then Burley Cross Postbox Theft may not be the throwaway it seems but the beginning of an expansion in a potentially great comic novelist.