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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It feels fortuitous that I picked a remote location to read Megan Hunter's extraordinary debut novel “The End We Start From.” Over the long Easter weekend I stayed at the Living Architecture property A House for Essex designed by Grayson Perry. This is a remote building filled with art and surrounded by fields of yellow rapeseed plants alongside the coast; it’d make an ideal spot to be holed up in if an apocalypse were ever to happen like it does in Hunter’s book. In this brief powerful novel London is flooded at the same time its narrator gives birth to her first child. She and her husband flee to stay with his parents on higher ground, but society quickly unravels in a nightmarish way. However, for the narrator life has just begun as she discovers the reality of motherhood caring for her baby son named Z. The novel gives an extraordinary sense of the way life alters both internally and externally as she struggles to survive.

The characters in this novel are known only by their initials which adds to the creepy sense of anonymity – as if without the language and structure of society people become nothing but faceless groups to be shepherded into temporary camps. Not only do these refugees from the devastated capital become faceless to the government, but friends, family and lovers become estranged and lose each other. The initials also give a sense of how insulated the narrator’s life becomes as her whole world becomes about this child while the civilization around her swiftly collapses. People go missing. Food becomes scarce. Rogue groups seek out isolated havens. Her life is concentrated solely on keeping her new son alive and nurturing him through this crisis.

Watch my vlog staying at A House for Essex & reading this novel.

This is a short book and tumultuous changes taking place over a long period of time are conveyed in brief passages. It’s commendable the way Hunter uses language so sparely with just enough detail to spark the reader’s imagination; a few lines are all it takes to convey a horribly tense dynamic surrounding the central character and her baby. The prose are so stripped down they almost turn poetic. Passages about the world’s end taken from different religious texts are interspersed throughout the narrative. This gives a curious sense of timelessness to the catastrophic proceedings and the feeling of cyclical change. It conveys a sense how the world is always coming to the end, but it’s also rejuvenated through change and new life.

Apocalyptic stories are common fodder for fiction as a way of exploring the unease we feel about the future of our society. Emily St. John Mandel did this so powerfully in her novel “Station Eleven” which (among other things) contemplates the way culture might morph and persist even after a devastating global illness. In “The End We Start From” Hunter flips a refugee crisis on its head so it’s the citizens of a wealthy world city that must flee for the hills seeking shelter. But it doesn’t do this in a polemical way. Rather it strips life down to philosophically enquire what makes us who we are when the people in our lives and place we live in are swept away. At one point she remarks how “Home is another word that has lost itself. I try to make it into something, to wrap its sounds around a shape. All I get is the opening of my mouth and its closing, the way my lips press together at the end. Home.” The story asks us to consider how resilient we would be if forced into an uncertain peripatetic life, but also how strong our sense of self is when transitioning between being a wife and mother, a husband and father or being a citizen and nomad. These are weighty and pertinent things to think about with such uncertain times ahead for all of us.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMegan Hunter
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The first thing that attracted me to reading John Ironmonger’s new novel “Not Forgetting the Whale” was its beautiful cover. Of course, that’s a shallow way to choose your next read, but the cover illustration of sea water cascading over a whale with a town in the distance is very striking. The story begins mysteriously enough with the residents of St Piran, a fictional Cornish village, who collectively remember and celebrate an event that occurred fifty years ago. A naked man washed ashore in the harbour of their small seaside village and a whale appeared in the water. The facts of this incident have been stretched and tangled throughout the generations and with multiple retellings. What was once a historical incident has been transformed into a myth with a meaning far beyond itself. This occurrence marked a large shift that occurred in society which nearly brought it to a frightening end: “Sometimes life could do this. It could draw a line. Beyond the line, life would say, nothing will ever be the same. The sun will rise tomorrow but it will rise onto a different world.” Yet this village continued on and thrived in a new form. What follows is a highly unusual and thoughtful story about the events which led to this post-apocalyptic point.

Joe is a man on the run. Under duress, this handsome 30 year old fled his life in London where he worked in a prestigious investment bank as a computer programmer. Joe was an instrumental part of developing a program which could predict the rise and fall of the stock market with reasonable reliability. However, the company’s director has designs on this program doing much more. When things reach a crisis point Joe drives off into the countryside to randomly wind up in isolated St Piran. Only one main road leads in and out of this quaint village with a population of just over three hundred residents. The village is composed of a cast of characters with their own entertaining quirks and idiosyncrasies. Life has a very different rhythm here from the fast-paced trading floor that Joe is used to: “Time. That’s what he was noticing. Time was moving at a different rate here.” The inhabitants don’t have much interest in news of the outside world because global events have little effect upon them. Little ever changes. In fact it’s remarked of one resident that “Demelza Trevarrick had lived sufficient years in St Piran to understand that the tranquillity of the village was almost geological in its permanence.” It seems nothing can affect the way of life for this tranquil place – until a deadly flu reaches Britain.

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes

Ironmonger’s primary preoccupation in this novel is with the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and his emphasis on self-interested cooperation. A crucial test for the resiliency of any government is at a point of crisis where self interest becomes the central motivating factor over any (social or legal) laws because people’s survival is suddenly at stake. The author’s story presents how events might play out and offers a surprising avenue through which individuals can weather through the challenges which threaten to tear a society down to basics. One resident observes “‘A village,’ Martha Fishburne would say, ‘is more’n a row of houses. It’s a whole network of connections.’” Whether they like it or not catastrophic affairs of The State (what Hobbes characterized metaphorically as a monster) come to their doorsteps in quite a literal way as a whale washes ashore and the essentials (food, electricity, oil) of everyday life are cut off from them after the outbreak of a deadly flu. The decision on how to move forward for this group of individuals will determine if they are able to progress as a collective or if their lives will be, as the philosopher famously surmised, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Caught in the middle of this is Joe whose actions inadvertently inspire the people as a guiding force. The ramifications of his experiences help steer his own personal direction in life, overcoming his estranged family’s tumultuous past and rediscovering what he values most.

I really enjoyed Ironmonger’s cleverly constructed story. He has a very different approach to the apocalypse tale from Emily St John Mandel’s “Station Eleven” which I also read recently. “Not Forgetting the Whale” is more concerned with the way macro systems of society feed down into the micro. Harnessing together some of the most pressing global concerns which make us fear for our collective future, the author proposes a realistic way in which civilization can become unhinged with the loss of only a single, but ultimately essential, part. Rather than focus on the panic and gore which normally attends apocalyptic stories, Ironmonger chooses instead to concentrate on deeper thoughts about how human nature factors in the correlation between individual motivations and social organization. It’s an engaging tale which poignantly develops its deeper meanings as it progresses while the history of both Joe and the village are slowly revealed. “Not Forgetting the Whale” creates an entire world which made me reflect upon my own.

Listen to the opening extract from the novel here: https://soundcloud.com/orionbooks/not-forgetting-the-whale-by-john-ironmonger-read-by-david-thorpe

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJohn Ironmonger
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