Saturday, July 28, 2012

Book review: The Yips

Nicola Barker came to my attention courtesy of Darkmans, her 2007 novel shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I loved that book so much that I have subsequently read almost everything she wrote before then, along with her 2010 Burley Cross Postbox Theft, and so when I saw she had another new book out, I jumped on it. And then was very glad to see it longlisted for this year's Booker Prize.

Barker is one of the most distinctive writers in modern English fiction. Her style is one that I can understand grating on some people, but I personally find her novels hilarious, imaginative and wonderfully populated. The Yips in some ways pushes her style even further - most of the 550 page book is dialogue (I've seen estimates that it's up to 90%), much of which is overlapping, stylised and tangential.

In fact, that sort of describes the book as a whole. The action, such as it is, centres on Stuart Ransom, a past-his-prime but ludicrously egotistical professional golfer, and Gene, a middle-aged man who works multiple jobs, including at a bar where he meets Stuart. (The first scene begins mid-conversation as a tipsy Stuart holds forth to Gene and barmaid Jen.) We cut away from them to meet Valentine, who lives with her mother. Her mother has recently suffered an accident which has left her confused about who she is, and who Valentine is. No connexion between the two settings is evident to begin with, but of course we expect that eventually they will meet up. Barker takes that convention further, though, by gradually adding more and more relationships, so that each character ends up having no more than one degree of separation from any other character. Charting the relationships between the characters in The Yips would result in a cobweb with every point linking in different ways to each other point.

There's not really a plot, as such. Things happen, but they seem slightly irrelevant compared to sitting back and watching the ever-increasing cast of characters come to know each other (& themselves). Few novels could have, for instance, a major character forcibly abducted by another character, left in the boot of a car for a few hours before being rescued by third character (based on suspicions of a fourth!) and yet have that barely register as an important event in the book's world. In fact, several of the characters involved seem mainly to see it as a case of an inconvenient piece of plotting spoiling their story. (The book itself is not that meta.) Throughout all her inter-connected storylines and relationships, Barker takes evident delight in confounding expectations and taking the story in different directions to what the reader may expect.

And throughout it all, we're treated to Barker's talent for eccentric characters, oddball locations (few novels have been set in Luton before, I suspect) and comically overstuffed writing. The blurb, to give some idea, lists some of the characters: 'a man who's had cancer seven times, a woman priest with an unruly fringe, the troubled family of a notorious local fascist, an interferring barmaid..., and a free-thinking Muslim sex therapist with his considerably more pious wife'.

There are many readers who would probably read that description and recoil in horror. As I said above, I can understand why people wouldn't like Barker's style. For me, though, it's a perfectly composed comic novel - dense but quick to read, largely plotless but still convoluted and joyfully highlighting characters, occupations and locations that fiction rarely touches. Not all of Barker's books are perfect, but I've enjoyed her last few in particular so much that she's one of my favourite living authors.

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