Writers who appear in their own fiction do so at their peril: it tends to make their characters pretty angry. Made to suffer cancer, Christie Malry warns B.S. Johnson that he will look stupid when they discover a cure, and anyway, ‘you shouldn’t be bloody writing novels about it, you should be out there bloody doing something about it.’ Jonathan Coe drops in to tell Maxwell Sim that his book is about to end; Sim looks ‘into the eyes of a serial killer’, and suspects that ‘beneath his courteous exterior, this guy was full of nothing but conceit and self-admiration.’ In At Swim-Two-Birds the characters murder their creator (who is, in turn, fictional – Flann O’Brien doesn’t entirely succumb to sado-masochism) and then write their own novel in which he is brought back to life, tried and then tortured. Odd-job man Clifford Bickerton isn’t any happier about being a character in In the Approaches, a novel by ‘that mean cow of an Author’, Nicola Barker. And why should he be? Barker’s characters are usually damaged, disturbed, losers. Bickerton is not in search of an author but trying to escape her, aware that Barker tends to show her people little mercy; from hungry owls, mistimed golf swings, small but deadly pats of frozen butter – there’s little safety.
Barker’s fiction assembles casts of incongruous misfits. Groupings have included a chiropodist, a drug dealer and a Kurdish immigrant with a morbid fear of lettuce (Darkmans, 2007); a celebrity golfer and a Muslim sex therapist (The Yips, 2012); a pornographic photographer, a haemophiliac teenager and two men who have swapped identities to hide from their troubled pasts (Wide Open, 1998). A couple of her earliest works and the more recent Clear (2004), a short but bounding novel in which characters theorise about the illusionist David Blaine, are set in London, but Barker’s territory is the hinterlands of the South-East, where literature doesn’t tend to happen – Luton, Canvey Island, the Isle of Sheppey, Ashford (‘gateway to Europe’). Despite the prizes – the Booker longlisting for Clear and The Yips, the shortlisting for Darkmans – she remains, like her characters, on the margins of the mainstream even if she’s earned a slightly bewildered respect for her work.
In the Approaches, Barker’s tenth novel, takes place in 1984 in Toot Rock, a cliff-edge village between Rye and Hastings, too insignificant to have its own tide table. Franklin D. Huff, a former journalist, is lodging at Mulberry Cottage, but he’s not exactly welcome; according to his housekeeper, Mrs Barrow, Huff has done too much hobnobbing with ‘hordes of filthy banditos and drug-smugglers and what-not’. He himself realises that he’s not come to ‘a place where you might melt into the fringes, the margins, the nothingness’. Instead, Toot Rock, like the village in Barker’s epistolary comedy, Burley Cross Postbox Theft (2010), is full of subterranean nosing. Huff soon finds himself at loggerheads with his landlady, Carla Hahn, who is in turn the object of the unwanted attentions of Clifford Bickerton. For reasons involving the insulted pride of a fat dog, she places a suitcase containing the carcass of a sand-shark under Huff’s bed. This is discovered on Huff’s return after a drunken night out. Carla feels guilty when she learns that the binge followed news of the death of Huff’s estranged wife, the photographer Kimberly Couzens, who spent the summer of 1971 at Mulberry Cottage with the late Cleary family: Bran, a political dissident suspected of links to the IRA; his wife, Kalinda, and their daughter, Orla. Twelve-year-old Orla was saint to her own cult of passionate worshippers, who believed she could redeem lost souls. She spent her days making daisy chains and praying for her followers – though, as a Thalidomide child, her palms didn’t touch – and now she seems to be haunting Carla, leaving a trail of eucalyptus oil.
Kimberly had hoped to make a book from the photographs she took of the Clearys, but the publishers wanted accompanying text and, for reasons never really made plain, she felt too close to the affair (what affair? Barker won’t say) to write it. So Huff’s task was to return to the cottage, ‘inhale the atmosphere’ and ‘reach out to the people who were there – on the periphery, in the background’ in the hope of cobbling together what happened that summer. His initial resolve to complete the project in Kimberly’s memory is matched only by his determination to avoid doing so for as long as possible. This includes evading the subject of Orla and, particularly, Bran, with Carla, Orla’s former nanny.
Huff and Carla narrate alternate chapters with occasional interjections from other characters, including Teobaldo the parrot:
Baldo! Baldo! Baldo! Baldo! WAH!
‘Sun’ near ‘cage’! Yay! ‘Sun’ near ‘cage’! Look at ‘sun’! Joy! Blink! Look at ‘sun’! Near ‘cage’. Happy. Happy ‘sun’. Rock, rock, rock. Happy!
And it only gets weirder, as Barker’s parrot narrates a subplot involving a stand-off between a misanthropic bird and a Hindi-speaking one. Characters fall into badger holes, find themselves hanging trouserless over gates, relate sensitive information loudly just as the hedge-cutter is turned off. The details are intriguing – I’d love to hear more about Kimberly’s mother, who ‘turned up at our wedding shoeless, in a homemade goat-skin dress’ – but the narrators’ short attention spans mean that many digressions are left unfinished.
Huff, meanwhile, is reluctant to talk about anything. He interviews some people who knew the Clearys, but urges his all too forthcoming subjects to keep the ‘awful truth’ concealed. He’s not interested in the story of Sorcha, Orla’s biggest fan, who organises a festival at Toot Rock each year on Orla’s birthday. He’s not interested in Orla’s talismanic coat, which is covered in symbols which the local poet-physicist Mrs Meadows insists represent a ‘Rosetta Stone of modern physics’. He’s not interested in finding out why the digits 4004 are carved into a tree in the garden of the cottage, and why they’re scrawled all over Carla’s wall when she wakes up in a cold sweat after dreaming about Orla. The problem is that we are interested. But Barker is not prepared to give her readers the satisfaction. Characters constantly interrupt themselves to qualify and clarify, while internal questioning takes up more narrative space than actual narrative.
The risk is that we will lose patience, or miss important plot details. ‘The Cleary story is definitely a strange one,’ Clifford reports.
‘Haunting’, even (woo-hoo!). But will she ever get around to telling it? Eh? Does she ever get around to telling a story? And aside from that (how can you write a story without actually telling a story?) I just feel like she’s really over-egging the pudding this time around … I think they’ll all say she’s losing the plot.
To agree with Clifford would be to miss the point. In the Approaches isn’t much interested in plot; it’s a challenge to storytelling. In Darkmans, italic interjections constantly question the narrative, but rather than holding things up, they give the story depth. In In the Approaches, speakers trail off, spoonerise and Freudian slip; they lose their way metaphorically and literally (in a rare blast of energy, Huff embarks on a forty-mile walk to confront Orla’s spiritual mentor, Father Hugh, at Douai Abbey – it turns out to be ninety miles away, and by the time he arrives he’s speaking in delirious Spanish). Most of the digressions are distractions; they promise revelation, but (a problem shared with her last novel, The Yips) never deliver. Too much explaining is left until the final few pages. Particularly jarring is the switch in Carla’s voice to clichéd religiosity: it’s rare to find cliché in Barker’s writing. Darkmans was also a wildly digressive and often confusing book, but in it human complexity wasn’t sacrificed.
At one point in Darkmans, a character visits a house where the walls are bleached with the ghostly outlines of crucifixes, taken down long before. Here is a reminder of the unsaid, of a past that can’t be erased. In the Approaches is, obsessively, about truth; seeking truth, but mostly about hiding from a truth one doesn’t want to hear. Huff tries to avoid using the word ‘death’ of Kimberly, preferring ‘a slightly vague, pointless, polite, peripheral word’ like ‘passing’. This encapsulates his whole attitude to the investigation. He’s avoiding researching the Cleary family because he is afraid he will discover that his wife was having an affair with his old friend Bran. He fears that by letting the story be told, his whole adult life will be proved a lie, that he will discover he was just ‘what’s that phrase again? In the approaches? On the outskirts? But never reaching a destination of any note? Just driving round on life’s eternal ring-road – too frightened, too unwitting, too stupid, too compromised to make that sharp turn into the very heart of the matter?’
Barker leads us to believe that secrets will be revealed in Kimberly’s photographs, those ‘truthful things’. They turn out to be just as subjective as the characters’ memories. She had arranged the photos in an order designed to give a particular impression, but Huff realises that by reordering them, or leaving out certain pictures, the collection can be made to tell multiple, contradictory stories. Kimberly herself warned him that the truth is kaleidoscopic. For Carla, truth is ‘a shining light. An eternal verity. The truth is … well it’s … it’s God, I suppose.’ For Clifford, it’s a block of ice being chipped away at by the tiny pick-axes of circumstance, conspiracy and perspective: ‘Well I never! Just feast your eyes on that! The Truth is actually a giant ice sculpture of Benny Hill dressed as Ernie the Milkman!’ In the Approaches is an example of the nihilism described in The Yips: ‘No philosophy. No guidance. No structure. No pay-off. No real consequences. Just stuff and then more stuff.’