“Try to remember that artists in these catastrophic times, along with the serious scientists, are the only salvation for us, if there is to be any. Be happy because no one is seeing what you do, no one is listening to you, no one really cares what may be achieved, but sometimes accidents happen and beauty is born.”
Earlier this year, Anne Charnock and her husband Garry stopped over on Bute on their way north to Applecross. It was fantastic to see them, of course, and we spent a hugely enjoyable afternoon and evening touring the island and talking books.
We all agreed things would be even better if they decided to move to Bute permanently. And so they did!
We’re thrilled beyond measure to have them here. Above is a photo of me and Anne, taken by Garry in the only-just-furnished living room of their new home. If I remember rightly we were discussing the possible outcome of next year’s Clarke Award…
One of the questions I’m most frequently asked as a writer is how I first became interested in horror fiction. The answer I usually give – because it’s true – is that I don’t really remember a time when I wasn’t interested in horror fiction. Some of my earliest memories involve me badgering my grandmother to invent stories for me – stories that featured (in no particular order) ghosts, skeletons, monsters, and giant robots. I was born with a love of the weird, in other words, a love that began struggling to find expression as soon as I could form coherent sentences.
There is one memory in particular though that feels central to my development as a horror writer, and once again it involves my grandmother. Gran lived by the sea, in a post-World War Two prefab bungalows that she resolutely refused to trade for bricks and mortar, and that had a strange, if not haunted then certainly resonant atmosphere all of its own. As a child, I loved visiting her there – and I loved being allowed to sort through the boxes and drawers of strange artefacts from earlier periods of her life: pieces of costume jewellery inherited from aunts and godparents, wooden mantelpiece ornaments brought back from her time in Kenya, the silver-plated cruet and biscuit barrel that once graced the sideboard of my great-grandparents’ house in Croydon, the half-hunter pocket watch that eventually became the inspiration for The Silver Wind.
My grandmother also had books. A whole host of them, many of them dating back to before the war. In one corner of her living room there stood a 1930s teak veneer bureau, the lower portion of which had glass sliding doors that were always difficult to open because of the books, crammed three layers deep on the shelves behind. It became one of my favourite pastimes while at my grandmother’s house to remove all the books from the bureau and then replace them in such a manner that they could be more easily seen. Of course they were always out of order again the next time I visited – but this only redoubled the pleasure of setting them to rights.
Many of the books in that bureau were mysterious to me – multi-volume family sagas, a subscription set of Dickens with minuscule print – and I never examined their contents, even while knowing their titles and cover blurbs by heart. Others – The Boy’s Bumper Book of Scientific Puzzles, Adventure Stories for Girls, The Wise Robin, a Tales from the Arabian Knights with pop-up illustrations – I read and reread until the stories and mottoes and intricate line drawings became as familiar to me as snapshots in a family album.
One book, more than the others, held me captive. It was called The Beach House, and I can only imagine it was the title that had appealed to my grandmother, or prompted one of her friends to give it to her as a gift – that random, ultimately spurious connection with the place she lived. Whether she had ever read it I never discovered. I felt shy of asking her, for some reason – I think because I did not want to reveal to her, or to anyone else, that I knew about the book, that I had read it. I think I was afraid someone might deem it ‘unsuitable’ and get rid of it without telling me.
The Beach House told the story of Simon Fletcher, a middle-aged man who retires to a run-down bungalow on the Sussex coast. We know little about him at first. He spends his days renovating the bungalow, only breaking off to undertake long walks along the beach that begins at the end of his road. Sometimes on his walks he encounters a woman in a black hat. Fletcher believes he has seen this woman before, somewhere, and as his obsession with her begins to take hold, we finally learn of the tragic events that brought Fletcher to the beach house in the first place.
The Beach House was not a long book, and yet the atmosphere it evoked – its vision of a lonely, self-deceiving protagonist trapped in a hell of his own making – exerted a powerful hold on me. I reread the book many times over the years, always returning it to its accustomed place in my grandmother’s bureau ready for the next time.
When Gran died I was away at university. I returned home briefly for the funeral, but by the time I next came home on vacation, my grandmother’s home had been dismantled. Together with most of the rest of her personal possessions, the books from the bureau, including The Beach House, had gone to house clearance.
I never saw the book again. I have never been able to find another copy.
If you’d asked me at the time if I’d heard of the Eden Book Society I would have said no. The Beach House for me was simply The Beach House – a book I loved as a teenager and that nobody but me seemed to have heard of. It was only much later, when I began taking a professional interest in horror fiction, that I started seeing references to the Eden Book Society in horror magazines. I still didn’t twig the connection between the Eden books and The Beach House, and it was only when someone on a panel at the World Horror Convention at Brighton a couple of years back happened to describe the cover of The Beach House exactly – they remembered it was an Eden book, but not the title or author – that I was able to join the dots.
For me, one of the most fascinating things about the Eden Book Society is that even though it existed right through until the internet age, there is still remarkably little information about either the society or its authors to be found online. There is no complete list of titles, for example – and this in spite of the efforts of various ardent Eden fans to put one together. Virtually every reader or writer of horror fiction you run into at conventions or film festivals or book events will have a story to tell you about an Eden book that particularly affected them, or about a mad year they spent going round second hand bookshops trying to fill the gaps in their Eden collection. What is more surprising – and actually quite weird – is how rarely you will find their story or memory or snippet of Eden folklore overlaps with your own.
It is almost as if our memories of Eden occupy parallel universes, with a different list of titles for every one.
When I first heard that Dead Ink had acquired the rights to the Eden back catalogue, I almost – almost – felt a twinge of regret. Would this wondrous slice of British horror history finally after all these years lose its mystique? The idea was terrifying, and rather sad. But on reflection I have come to the conclusion that we have nothing to fear. The Eden Book Society is bound to create new mysteries about itself, even as the old ones – some of them, anyway – are revealed. That is and always has been its nature. Most importantly, the books themselves – all long out of print – will be returned to us, and at affordable prices.
Which will be your favourite?
I’m now back on Bute after my month in Paris – a residency that saw me visit ten museums, innumerable places of interest and seven cinemas, culminating in a matinee at the St Andre des Arts, a unique and fantastic independent cinema just a five-minute walk away from Shakespeare and Company and within easy reach of a host of excellent bistros (but then again, that’s true of anywhere in Paris). To have seen Sally Potter’s new movie The Party – a film so British in nuance, in tone, in its political concerns – at this most Parisian of venues added up to a strange sense of cultural disjuncture. The film itself was brilliant: merciless, excoriating, stunningly shot and laugh-out-loud funny, even while providing a salutary reminder of everything I’d be returning to the following day…
What I did mostly in Paris, though, was write, and think about writing, both the project I was engaged in while I was there and what might come afterwards, the way those two entities seemed increasingly, as time progressed, to bleed into one. The piece of writing I completed – some 15,000 words of first draft – while staying at Les Recollets is a strange hybrid of pure fiction and detailed account of actual stuff I was actually doing, inspired by Chris Marker’s 1962 film La Jetée, prompted by my own experience of being in Paris, expanded by thoughts on the novel I’m about to start writing. Indeed, I have started writing it: the piece I wrote in Paris, suitably edited and redrafted, will form the prologue.
This past month has been instructive and inspiring in ways that cannot – at this early stage – be fully articulated, and I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to all those involved in making my trip possible.
It is wonderful to be home. There is much to be done, with hopefully some more good news to report in the coming weeks.
In some ways this is my least favourite time of the year – I hate it when the clocks go back, and I am already looking forward to the spring equinox – and so anything that brightens it up is welcome indeed. Whether or not it’s appropriate to talk of Hallowe’en ‘brightening things up’ I’ll leave for you to decide – but as a moment to take stock, to light the fire (metaphorically if not literally) and make lists of favourite horror fiction and film then yes, for me it is!
Horror fiction comes in many forms, and the kind of horror I associate with Hallowe’en tends to have an elegiac, sepia-tinted quality that has as much to do with autumnal mists and shorter evenings as with the pagan festival of Samhain itself. Ironically, this would decidedly exclude offerings like John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher flick Halloween (not to mention its ludicrous sequels), which seems part of another genre entirely and as father of the jump-scare has done horror cinema no favours at all.
Here then are three unequivocal Hallowe’en recommendations, all of them British, all of them excellent. I hope you enjoy them.
1. The Inner Room by Robert Aickman.
‘Two rooms on the ground floor remained before I once more reached the front door. In the first of them a lady was writing with her back to the light and therefore to me. She frightened me also, because her grey hair was disordered and of uneven length, and descended in matted plaits, like snakes escaping from a basket, to the shoulders of her coarse grey dress. Of course, being a doll, she did not move, but the back of her head looked mad. Her presence prevented me from regarding at all closely the furnishings of the writing room.’
One of Aickman’s longer works, this is a masterpiece among masterpieces, a horror story of uncommon power and disquieting political undercurrents, told in the restrained, deceptively quiet manner of the classic Victorian ghost story. It begins in an almost comedic manner: an observant, intelligent child describes what happens when her father’s car breaks down, leaving the family stranded for a couple of hours in an unfamiliar place. The result of this mini-adventure – the acquisition of a sinister dolls’ house the obtuse if well-meaning father insists on calling Wormwood Grange – has far-reaching consequences. Dolls’ houses are one of my obsessions anyway, and even re-reading the above short extract is enough to make me breathe a little faster. Any Aickman story would make ideal Hallowe’en reading, but with this one you get more pages to feast upon.
2. Don’t Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier
I happen to think Daphne Du Maurier is underrated. She’s world-famous, of course, with several of her novels adapted for film multiple times across multiple territories. She was a bestselling writer in her own lifetime, but what is not talked about so much – then or now – is what a good writer she is. As a highly successful woman, Du Maurier predictably found herself being type-cast as a writer of sensationalist suspense fiction, the kind of thing that was fine for entertaining the ladies but most definitely not to be taken seriously. Her novels make compulsive reading, yes – but they are also small masterpieces of narrative economy with a deftness of characterisation and style that reward repeated reading and warrant closer attention than they have often received*. Her short stories in particular are taut as drums. My first encounter with Du Maurier came through a dog-eared Penguin paperback of her collection The Blue Lenses. I was about thirteen at the time and I would say that my encounter with these stories formed a defining moment in my appreciation of horror fiction. I’m choosing Don’t Look Now as my Hallowe’en Du Maurier recommendation though because again, you get more story for your money, and because it exists with its 1973 film adaptation by Nicolas Roeg in a near-perfect equilibrium of mutual understanding. Could Roeg’s film be the greatest British horror film of all time? It’s certainly up there. Du Maurier’s original novella, a poignant and ultimately terrifying story of a married couple haunted by the accidental drowning of their young daughter, is not just a great horror story, it’s a sublime piece of English short fiction.
3. A Field in England dir Ben Wheatley screenplay Amy Jump
‘Quintessential’ is possibly the most over-used adjective ever among listmaniacs, but Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump’s 2013 film truly is the quintessential Hallowe’en watch. Set in the English Civil War, it tells the story of a bunch of common soldiers who flee the battlefield – in search of a pub, what else? – only to find themselves in mortal spiritual danger of the most uncommon kind. Shot entirely in black and white, A Field in England has in its jump-cuts and unscripted asides something of the quality of found-footage, but without any of the derivative and outworn tropes that have sadly become the defining features of that sub-genre**. This film is genuinely unnerving – some scenes made me go cold all over and that really doesn’t happen often when I’m watching horror films. It could be argued that Wheatley’s films kick-started the current renaissance in folk horror and A Field in England is, absolutely, the The Wicker Man of its generation. There’s only one problem with this movie: it’s almost too frightening to watch alone…
* Probably my biggest beef with Roger Michell’s really-quite-OK film adaptation of Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel is that for some totally inexplicable reason he decided to replace the unforgettable first line of the novel – ‘They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. Not any more, though.’ – with some bland paraphrase of his own. Madness.
** Stupidly, the only horror film I thought to bring with me to Paris was John Erick Dowdle’s 2014 As Above, So Below which is at least Paris-set, a fact that doesn’t, on balance, make up for its general ridiculousness. That being said, I do have a guilty affection for it. Must be the catacombs…
In the courtyard of Paris’s Lycée Sophie Germain, where I met with some wonderful sixth formers last week to talk about my writing, there is a small but very beautiful bust of Germain, who was a mathematics prodigy and scholar and in her own way a revolutionary. The difficulties she experienced in being accepted as a mathematician lasted the whole of her life, and did not end even with her death. I first got to know about Sophie Germain through Judith French’s play A Spinster of No Profession, broadcast on Radio 4 in 1998. She has been a hero of mine ever since. ‘Spinster of no profession’ is what was recorded on Germain’s death certificate, in the space for ‘metier’.
The little blue book was rattling around in my purse. I took it out and turned to the last thing he had said (‘You stupid broad’, et cetera). Underneath was written Girl backs down – cries – manhood vindicated. Under ‘Real Fight With Girl’ was written Don’t hurt (except whores). I took out my own pink book, for we all carry them, and turning to the instructions under ‘Brutality’ found:
Man’s bad temper is the woman’s fault. It is also the woman’s responsibility to patch things up afterwards.
There were sub-rubrics, one (reinforcing) under ‘Management’ and one (exceptional) under ‘Martyrdom’. Everything in my book begins with an M.
They do fit together so well, you know. I said to Janet:
“I don’t think you’re going to be happy here.”
“Throw them both away, love,” she answered.
(The Female Man, Joanna Russ 1975)
It’s weird. There seems to be a fair amount of commentary on Russ that would seek to portray this, her most well known novel as brilliant in its way yes, but still a bit of a seventies throwback. Encountering it this week – belatedly and for the first time – I don’t find it has dated at all. The slang is dated, sure, so is the fashion, but so what? The novel The Female Man reminds me of most – not in terms of form or writing style (though even here there is some kinship) but in terms of affect – is Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, published just last year. I have still to decide if this counts as empowering or depressing.
The Female Man is a blistering polemic. Like The Sellout, it is very funny, the point being that it shouldn’t be, that readers should be asking themselves exactly why they are laughing. It is also a masterpiece of postmodern fiction, and should be taught and talked about as such, rather than constantly being siphoned off into ‘1970s Feminist SF’ where it can be conveniently sidelined as a niche interest.
Russ has been by my side constantly this week. In the gobsmacking halls of the Musée d’Orsay, where one is surrounded by women, most of them naked, but where the masterpieces on display do not include even a single work by a female artist.
At the secluded and elegantly shimmering Villa des Brillants in Meudon, where you can see a number of Rodin’s sculptures in the place where they were created and where I thought mostly about Gwen John, who lived in Meudon for thirty years, creating an art that forms one of the most remarkable bodies of work of the pre-war era.
John died in desperate poverty and virtually unknown.
I was hoping to be able to visit the street where Gwen John lived, but for all its acres of coverage of Rodin, Google remains tacit on the subject.
I started reading Paul McAuley’s Fairyland because I’ve been wanting to catch up with a few more previous Clarke winners. I had no idea, when I began it, that the novel’s brilliant second section takes place in a future Paris. It feels wonderfully appropriate to have read it during my residency here.
I admire Fairyland, firstly for its creative ingenuity – rendering fairies as a science fictional conceit is a great idea and McAuley has a lot of fun with it – and secondly for its wealth of ideas: the socially divided, fragmenting Europe in which Fairyland takes place isn’t a million miles from Dave Hutchinson’s fractured Europe series and McAuley set out to explore it twenty years earlier. Its prescience – not of events so much as tone – is remarkable in places, a grubby, post-cyberpunk latent awareness of things to come. The biotech elements have so much potential, and my only gripe with Fairyland is that too much energy is wasted, in the end, on the ho-hum chase-and-find thriller plot. Your mileage may vary, of course – it’ll be no secret to regular readers of this blog that I find most quest plots excruciatingly tedious and much prefer the detective mystery template.
But Fairyland is well worth reading for Part 2 alone – a scintillating piece of writing, a magisterial novella in its own right, showcasing everything science fiction can do and should be.
Nano-fairies undermining Eurodisney. I think they’re already here.
Following the announcement of the Booker Prize on Tuesday, I’ve been thinking again about the decision, made back in 2013, to make American novels (albeit American novels published in the UK) eligible for the prize. I was an agnostic at the time, but now feel less sanguine. With two American winners in a row, we begin to see how our most celebrated literary prize might increasingly come to be dominated by American concerns, an American worldview, and most especially American modes of writing. Looking back at the shortlists these past three years, we see how interesting and diverse they are. We also see how an intangible something has shifted.
It’s not even about the winners and shortlistees, and least of all is it about Paul Beatty and George Saunders, both eminently worthy of winning prizes, both wonderful artists whose inclusive and dedicated approach to writing should be celebrated and promoted. It’s more about what happens further down the food chain, where – because of the necessary new rules restricting even further the numbers of books publishers are allowed to submit, and thereby concentrating submissions still more firmly into the hands of the more powerful players – ever fewer British and Commonwealth writers are going to have a chance to even have their book in contention. This will inevitably affect the texture of the prize, the overall outlook and – I have come to believe – not in a good way. Earlier this week I reread Philip Hensher’s piece for the Guardian, published shortly after the announcement that American novels were to be made eligible. At the time I thought it was a tad hysterical. Now I think that, although the Booker isn’t quite as doomed as Hensher suggests, he makes some pertinent points that are indeed being borne out by experience.
It’s a bit like Brexit, really: someone should have the guts to admit this was a mistake and press the reset button.
As a general rule, I wouldn’t normally be in the right place at the right time to observe an art world scandal as it unfolded but this week, by sheer force of happenstance, I was. Joep van Lieshout’s sculpture Domestikator, rejected by the Louvre on grounds of being a public obscenity, was erected (yup) on Monday in front of the Pompidou Centre instead. Pompidou patrons are more accepting than general strollers in the Tuileries, apparently. Our favourite Guardian arts commentator, Jonathan Jones, has got himself all in a lather about it, insisting that Domestikator is ‘nasty public art’ and that shoving people’s faces in it is an act of bullying. Which is a shame, given that he clearly understands the visual language and intent of the sculpture perfectly well:
“Van Lieshout is making an in-joke about architecture, mocking the Dutch tradition of utopian art and design. In the centenary year of the De Stijl movement, Domestikator resembles a De Stijl design gone badly wrong. It looks as if a socially responsible modernist architect has created a vision of an ideal habitation, only to accidentally make it look like a man penetrating a dog.”
Why the rest of his piece had to be so po-faced and self-righteous, I have no idea. Claiming that he believes van Lieshout’s statement to be ‘elitist’ is just Jones trying to position himself on the right side of the barricades. The sculpture is so abstracted it’s difficult to see how it could offend anyone unless – like Jones – they were deliberately setting out to be offended. Van Lieshout said on Monday that he was ‘disappointed’ by the Louvre’s decision to offload the sculpture. Well, he needn’t be. People at the Pompidou have been enjoying, chatting about and clustering excitedly around the piece all week. Dare I suggest they seem to have taken it to their hearts? It’s certainly getting a lot more attention than it would have done if the Louvre had simply put it up where it was originally supposed to be and kept stumm about it. As for Jonathan Jones, going on past form, he’ll no doubt pop up again in ten years’ time to tell us why Domestikator is actually the greatest piece of public artwork ever.
On Monday evening I took part in an event at La Maison de la Poesie, to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of my French publisher, Editions Tristram. The honour of being onstage in such a venue cannot be overstated. As part of my segment of the evening, Tristram’s co-director, Sylvie Martigny read a short extract from the French edition of The Race, and it was brought home to me just what a marvellous translator Bernard Sigaud is. The words were in French, yet the weight and rhythm of the sentences, the emotional range and tone were inalienably mine. A small miracle had been performed, and it is precisely this kind of small miracle that the art of translation is all about. Once again, the privilege of having such passionate, committed, creative people working on my behalf cannot be overstated. Thank you, Tristrams. Thank you, Bernard.
‘The 2017 follow-up [to the 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner] simply couldn’t be any more of a triumph: a stunning enlargement and improvement.’ So says Peter Bradshaw in his Guardian review of Denis Villeneuve’s much-anticipated blockbuster. He gushes five stars all over it, insists we all rush out and watch it on the biggest screen possible. I love the original movie (because of course I do) and with the pre-release press almost unanimously positive I was massively looking forward to seeing this new one. Was I set up to be disappointed? Is it possible for big-budget science fiction to actually deliver any more? (I’m thinking of my personal catalogue of recent let-downs: Gravity, Interstellar, Arrival, and I’m not even going to mention Alien: Covenant.)
What was it about the original? Something about the texture, the lighting, the score (of course), Rutger Hauer (of course), but most of all the un-pin-downable nature of a film with themes too big to be easily summarised, its open-endedness, its inexplicability, the sense that for those two-and-some hours we were living in that world, experiencing the claustrophobia of a society that had lost its moral compass, that – in spite of its technological advances – was coming unspooled.
This past couple of days – since people have actually started seeing the film, in other words – I’ve read quite a bit online about how depressingly retrograde Blade Runner 2049 is in its treatment of women. Personally I feel divided on that subject. Whilst the background sets do feature giant-sized avatars of naked ladies, and the AI-girlfriend trope is dealt with much more interestingly in Spike Jonzes’s film Her, Robin Wright and Sylvia Hoeks are nonetheless every bit as front and centre as Jared Leto and Ryan Gosling. If the film is indeed a man-film, I think it’s more in its overall attitude and governing ambience: it is supremely dishonest about violence, as Hollywood action movies are mostly always dishonest about violence, It steamrollers through the idea of any form of problem-solving that is not based around the physical exercise of power. It simplifies and erases. It negates the idea of people (and by people I also mean replicants) living their lives.
Instead of the tears in rain monologue, we get ‘if one of us can have a child, that proves we have souls’. Or something. Dodgy sentiment, poor writing.
‘The sequel slightly de-emphasises the first film’s intimate, downbeat noir qualities in favour of something more gigantic and monolithic,’ says Bradshaw. Yeah, Pete, and that’s precisely the problem. It’s all just a little bit… bland?
I like Denis Villeneuve. In spite of his escalating fame, he keeps trying to make interesting films. Some of his movies (Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy) have been amazing and only one (Sicario) has been actively awful. I didn’t hate Blade Runner 2049. I just feel a bit meh about it.
Harrison Ford is great in it, though, I’ll give it that.
Fantasycon this year was in Peterborough, a city I’d never previously visited and a venue – The Bull hotel – that I was particularly keen to spend time in as it was the site of Chris’s very first Eastercon, back in 1964.
A great weekend, and with just a couple of days’ turnaround – scarcely time to repack my luggage – I’m about to head out again, this time to Paris!
I’m on a month’s writing residency – a unique window of time in which to read, research, come to know a fantastic city a little better and most of all, to get into gear for writing my next book. I shall also be doing a bit of promotion for the French edition of The Race, which was published last month. If you happen to be in Paris on October 10th, why not come along to Librairie Charybde, where I’ll be taking part in an evening event with Carola Dibbell, whose extraordinary near-future novel of a post-pandemic America, The Only Ones, I’ve just finished reading. (Yet another example, if any were needed, of why the Clarke Award should be opened to US-published novels…)
I’m intending to blog as usual while I’m away, so watch this space. In the meantime, it’s back to the packing, and huge thanks to my wonderful French publishers, Editions Tristram, and La Maison de la Poesie for arranging such a marvellous opportunity.
I’ve been thinking about this for a long time so I’m just going to say it: if Nicola Barker were a man, she would immediately become Significant, hailed as one of most exciting and innovative British writers of the postmodern era. As things stand, she is more usually sidelined into ‘quirky’, ‘whimsical’, ‘difficult’ or ‘depressing’. She has ‘a devoted cult following’, of course she does, and anyway, she was shortlisted for the Booker, so what does she have to moan about?
Why then is she still not discussed alongside Pynchon, Foer, Amis, Rushdie or even Mitchell? Barker’s oeuvre is remarkable in its depth of field, its social comment, its capacity for formal innovation. Her dialogue is incisive and brilliantly funny. The stories she tells offer an often excoriating commentary on the way we live now. Yet Barker is only ever discussed as an anomaly, a domestic comedian, an acquired taste. Why is this? The answer seems more depressingly clear with each new novel: women writers (still) aren’t expected to do this kind of stuff, so the narrative they get written into becomes subtly twisted.
“I know that piece.” The Stranger – Savannah – nodded towards ****, but his eyes remained fixed on me. “There are three parts to it. The Prelude was written long after the other two movements, but now it sits at the start. It is wistful, melancholy. There are bells ringing throughout. And an organ plays Bach. The composer – Augustin Barrios – was of indigenous blood. A great Romantic. A genius.”
“He died, in poverty, of syphilis,” **** sneered. “What possible romance is there in that?”
Nicola Barker’s new novel H(A)PPY is remarkable in many ways. The dystopia it portrays is all the more chilling because it is presented as a utopia: there are no mass killings, no persecution, no banned books. All that is understood to be in the past. The social coercion that exists – to be perfect, to be happy, to discard the depressing march of history in favour of universal progress – exists because it has been chosen, because people accede to it willingly. No one is hungry, confused or in need. For Mira A, her desire to find out about a particular figure from the past – the Paraguayan musician and composer Augustin Barrios – is dangerous only in that it throws her preconceptions – her notion of happiness – into doubt. Like turning back the corner of a rug to reveal the dirty floor beneath, one small revelation can lead to a greater, more far reaching revelation that has huge implications. So it is for Mira A. So it is with H(A)PPY. So it is for the question over the reception of Barker’s writing.
In H(A)PPY, even the choice of the guitarist as hero is significant. The guitar has often been looked down upon as a folk instrument, an instrument lacking in subtlety, flexibility or repertoire, insignificant precisely because of its accessibility. The great novels of music have tended to place their focus upon the piano or the violin – glamorous and complicated, the instruments of record for tortured, glamorous, misunderstood males. Barker’s choice of the guitar – available to everyone, easily portable, a ready accompaniment and partner to the human voice, the natural instrument of protest – is in itself an act of rebellion, a way of smuggling subversive ideas between the cracks of cultural orthodoxy.
I scowl and turn again to the native – the performer – the patriot – the humiliation – the farce. Which of these two should I address? I wonder. Which do I prefer? Both are unreal. Both have been so carefully, so painstakingly constructed. Can these two – the one so civilised, so polite, so careful: the other so fearless and ridiculous and romantic – be merely one entity? Is that feasible? How might I conceivably hope to address them when I am not even able to unite them successfully within my own consciousness.
The native Barrios sits down on a pew and begins to play. The kneeling Barrios covers his ears.
Here Barker illuminates the duality of Barrios, a natural genius forced to adopt Western models of excellence in order to be taken seriously as a composer, whilst simultaneously being driven to perform his nationality in order to enhance his stage persona. As she is drawn to examine Barrios’s inner conflict in greater depth, so Mira A discovers a similarly corrosive dichotomy within herself.
H(A)PPY addresses Barker’s recurring concerns – class, celebrity, capitalism, the slippery, explosive power of the written word – whilst also exploring questions of power inequalities between citizens and state, Western nations and indigenous peoples. I found in H(A)PPY some of the same quietly oppressive quality that characterises Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka, a chilling vision of the alternate near future that is all the more effective for being so understated.
As science fiction, H(A)PPY is brilliant: inventive and thought provoking and unlike anything you’ll have read so far this year. In the games it plays with scrambled fonts and typographic art, you will probably be reminded of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, always a good thing in my book. Barker recommends reading H(A)PPY whilst listening to the music of Barrios, a ploy some might dismiss as a gimmick but that I would go along with, one hundred percent. In fact it’s a shame the publisher couldn’t have gone the extra mile and included a CD recording tucked into the back flap. Luckily you don’t have to search far to find what you’re looking for. As a novel about music, H(A)PPY is one of the most imaginative and powerful I’ve ever read.
In many ways, this is the novel I wanted Joanna Kavenna’s A Field Guide to Reality to be. H(A)PPY is more successful for me as science fiction through being more explicit, and Barker’s writing about Augustin Barrios was never not going to resonate. I love this book. I think Nicola Barker is a genius. Should H(A)PPY end up on the Clarke shortlist in 2018? Hell, yes.