I Am Sovereign by Nicola Barker.jpg

Lately it feels like Nicola Barker hasn’t been able to finish writing a novel without wanting to blow it up. Her last novel “H(A)PPY” was set in a future society where everyone’s mind was plugged into a single continuous stream and its hero’s consciousness became more hallucinatory while the text itself morphed into multi-coloured fragments and bizarre structures. It seems like there’s more tension in her narratives lately where the fourth wall is breaking down. Her new book “I Am Sovereign” is a self-designated novella. Within the story it’s stated “This is just a novella (approx.. 23,000 words)”. And its story is quite simple on the surface. The 49 year-old protagonist Charles creates customized stuffed bears and is seeking to sell his house in Wales. Over a twenty minute period estate agent Avigail presents the house to prospective buyer Wang Shu accompanied by her daughter Ying Yue who has come along as her translator. But the concept of this tale is merely a box within which Barker illuminates the artificiality of her characters and uses them as ciphers to discuss concepts of narrative itself. What little story there is soon breaks down – Barker even states at one point “Nothing of much note happens, really, does it?” Instead, Barker engages in arguments with particular characters and muses upon the nature of language, storytelling and authority. There’s a frenetic energy to Barker’s writing which is irresistible if you’re in a good humour or frustrating if you’re after an old-fashioned plot.

The thing about reading such a self-conscious and angst-ridden story is that it ought to be eye-rolling, but Barker has such clear affection for her characters that it feels like she really wants to grant them complete independence while also controlling them. “The Author can’t bear the idea of those four people leaving Charles’s tiny work room. They feel so alive to her.” Traits and details are assigned to characters but just as quickly they’re questioned because the characters believe differently. This complication comes most into play with the introduction of a character named Gyasi “Chance” Ebo who feels it’s an injustice that Barker has dragged him into her narrative. The character and author bicker and eventually his role in the story is replaced by that of another character. Barker toys with the limits of independence that characters can have to break free from an author’s designated plan and write their own story. This has obvious parallels to how we exist in society – especially in contemporary British society which is plagued with the question and democratically decided edict of Brexit. Are we creating the boundaries within which we want to exist or are those boundaries being written around us?

The characters are particularly inured to modern-day gurus found on YouTube who dole out advice. One such proponent advocates the goal “To be Sovereign. To be present, positive and boundaried.” There’s a resistance in Barker’s characters to be the screens she is projecting upon, but they are also aware there is no independence without their dependence upon her. It’s like the spiritual paradox of free will versus predestination. The comparison is very apt because Barker’s fiction is quite often consumed with questions of faith and spirituality. The characters in this novella are superstitious and seek revelation. However, the religious concerns expressed aren’t about indoctrination so much as they’re about searching and epistemological questions. Barker seems to take all this very seriously while also recognizing it’s absurd and her concerns are ultimately unanswerable. In her playfulness Barker is able to have it both ways in this novella. She states “shouldn’t fiction strive to echo life (where everything is constantly being challenged and contested)? Or is fiction merely a soothing balm, a soft breeze, a quiet confirmation, a temporary release? Why should it be either/or? Can’t fiction be exquisitely paradoxical?” I enjoyed the way this novella so joyously presents authorial problems and questions rather than a story with an affirmative arc. It’s like a teddy bear whose stuffing is oozing out, but you love it nevertheless.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNicola Barker
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Nicola Barker’s novels consistently surprise and puzzle me with their wide-ranging subject matter, discursive style and wondrously mind-bending sensibility. She’s a writer frequently in tune with what’s happening now whether it’s memorialising a magician’s 2003 performance art in her novel “Clear” or investigating the contemporary cultural and ethnic landscape of England through the life of a boorish pro-golfer in her novel “The Yips.” So it feels like another creative feat that she sets her new novel “H(A)PPY” not just in a dystopian future, but in a post-post apocalyptic time. Here she charts the journey of a musician named Mira A as some inner rebellion forces her to question the meaning of freedom, creativity, individuality and, yes, happiness itself. The result is a fascinating tale which speaks strongly about our modern times and demonstrates impressively daring narrative ingenuity.

Far in the future after society has been ravaged by a number of disasters, the general population has been reigned into a state of consistent harmony by plugging their lives into a continuous stream and an overarching graph which monitors and stabilizes their lives. All basic needs are cared for with clothes that instantly fit to meet a wearer's needs. Sexual frustration isn't an issue because people's genitals have shrunk down to virtually nothing due to an evolutionary process. Unhappiness has been ironed out from the populace through something like that age-old Buddhist adage: ‘if one can eliminate desire/attachment, one can eliminate suffering.’ Any inconsistent or strong feelings are flagged in the narrative of this collective grid and Barker shows this by actually changing the colour of the text on the page. Words that might incite chaotic emotion such as arrogant or embarrassment are subject to a “pinkering” effect. This System corrects such inconsistencies in its population through chemicals or, in extreme cases, ominous-sounding clamps fitted around the head.

The modern parallels are immediately obvious in that (if you use social media) you are frequently contributing to and participating in a continuous collective narrative of text and images. While ostensibly this should be an arena for open/free-thinking debate, we must ask ourselves sometimes how much we both monitor each other and ourselves, modifying the language we use and what we post to fit in with each other or not be too disruptive. No one wants to be subject to an online backlash. Yet we participate because we want to participate just as Mira A wants to cleanse her narrative stream in order to be equanimous. She believes in the righteousness of what are called “the Young” who exist in a subdued present state of perpetual harmony. But an issue keeps arising where her affirmation of a H(A)PPY state persists in “disambiguating” and “parenthesising.”

Mira A has begun to form her own narrative in the text of this book and that's where the trouble arrises. This sets her existence in a timeline. If you are cognizant of the past and thinking about the future you are subject to the interplay between memory, imagination and the present time you live in. Here is the chaos of consciousness which is never stable, but always shifting and surprising and raising more questions. We try to make sense of the world when there is no sense to be made which is why some of us are obsessed with reading so much, but no matter how many books we read they will never be enough. Instead, we're perpetually considering other narratives and letting these mingle with, inform and colour our own. When Mira A finds herself unable to stop the flow of her narrative someone who challenges her observes “What is behind the blind alley? you scream. What is the mystery? What is the secret? 'But these are empty questions. There is no secret here, no mystery, just empty speculation.'” There is no definitive answer or ultimate knowledge, but we keep asking questions, reading about other lives and telling our own stories.

A performance by Agustin Barrios. In her preface, Barker suggests listening to his music while reading this novel.

Mira A finds herself embroiled in a struggle between someone who is trying to stabilize the System and someone who is trying to break it with a revolution called “The Banal.” No matter how ardently and frequently she chastises herselfwith the phrase *TERRIBLE DISCIPLINE* her narrative continues, her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and random streams of information flood in. She's haunted by and seeks to riff off from the music of Agustín Barrios who was a Paraguayan virtuoso guitarist and composer from the early 20th century. Like a Google search which plunges us into a rabbit hole of infinite information his music leads to interjections about the colonial history of Paraguay, the suppression of its native language and social oppression. Add to this a haunting sense of Mira A's connection to a distant red planet, a bizarre twin self (Mira B), a brown-eyed girl in a photograph, a cathedral constructed out of phrases and a sinister mechanical canine named Tuck and the story gets very weird. About halfway through this novel it becomes totally wild where the text leaps off the page, changes font, inflates, overlaps, fizzles, twists backward and shades into different colours. Mira A even dips her finger into the text to form cryptic hieroglyphic shapes.

This is a novel that you either play along with or get turned off by. I enjoyed the crazy ride. If you are continuously fascinated by but overwhelmed and dispirited with the boundless streams of information to be found online (like I frequently am) Barker reflects this well. At the same time I was moved by the way the story evokes questions about the interplay between our stream of thoughts and our online social timelines. Consciously or not, we try to cultivate and control online personas by the information we choose to share or manipulate or withhold or erase. Mira A wants to simply fit in and be happy, but her personality has crooked edges. It's only through embracing our differences and contradictions that we're able to feel fully ourselves. Despite innately knowing this we keep trying to regulate ourselves and control the way people perceive us. That's what makes this fantastical novel feel so prescient and real.

Read a fun interview with Nicola Barker here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jul/22/nicola-barker-books-interview-love-island-happy

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNicola Barker
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