H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker - review by Sam Leith

Sam Leith

Reach for the Stars



William Heinemann 282pp £20 order from our bookshop

No book Nicola Barker writes is remotely like a book by anyone else, which is one of the many reasons to celebrate her. Also, no two books by Nicola Barker are doing remotely the same thing, which is another. So you never know quite what you’re in for. And H(A)PPY, even by her own extravagant standards, is very strange indeed.

At the outset, we seem to be in a relatively down-the-line sci-fi utopia/dystopia. Barker’s protagonist, Mira A, lives in a world where, after the vaguely specified ecological and political catastrophes of the centuries following our own, the Altruistic Powers did away with God and used technology and chemicals to make The Young happy:

We are Innocent. We are Clean and Unencumbered. Every new day, every new dawn, every new hour, every new minute, we are released once more from the tight bonds of History (the Manacles of The Past).

The Young live in a perpetual present tense. Everyone can read everyone else’s mind (if they want to); they are encouraged – not coercively, but by the reciprocal approval of the community – to turn away from anything that threatens what’s known as an EOE (Excess Of Emotion), and the very language they use is monitored. Anything that suggests ego or passion causes the collective Information Stream to blush a warning purple. Here is a quasi-Buddhist technotopia in which everyone is, at least ostensibly, Free From Desire.

But not Mira A. She’s letting the side down. She can’t quite stay on the straight and narrow. She oscillates. She has unauthorised dreams. Barker is trying to write the story of someone trying to access a language (or, in Mira A’s case, forced to access a language) that is unavailable – someone who swims in a language designed to make certain thoughts unthinkable.

That’s tricky for the reader, to start with. When you get stuck into a novel you
usually look for feeling, narrative, linguistic colour, character, and these are necessarily absent here. Those of us who love the cataracts of language in Barker’s previous novels, her exuberance and jokes, will find the first part of this book – I hate to say it – a little bit boring. Mira A is surrounded by near-identical milquetoasts called things like Kipp and Tuesday and Kite and Powys, and her Neuro-Mechanical dog, Tuck, whom you can’t blame her for hating.

Mira A is interesting, though, because she has the seeds of the story in her. She tries to resist narrative, but she has a Flaw, and no amount of tinkering with her Oracular Devices (there’s a fair bit of this sort of stuff) will put her right. She is hopelessly sucked into narrative, albeit an odd one. And she starts to feel her way towards a different music: she plays a ‘perfected’ version of the West African lute called the kora, but she finds herself retuning it to make it imperfect – that crack through which, as Leonard Cohen has it, the light gets in.

Ideas of doubleness and shadow selves, oscillation and resonance are everywhere. Mira A is named after a star, she’s told early on: ‘Sometimes it is visible from our planet, from Mother Earth, but at other times it vanishes from view. And there is a Mira B. Another star. A sister star. A less well-formed star.’ She wonders: is she, too, shadowed by an imperfect self? ‘Who is Mira B?’ We find out, sort of. And Mira has visions of a historical figure (from the bad old days; discouraged), the Paraguayan guitar virtuoso Agustín Barrios (who himself had a double self: his nativist alter ego Nitsuga Mangoré). Barker suggests you listen to Barrios’s music as you read the book – especially, perhaps, his devotional masterpiece ‘La Catedral’, since Mira A is also building a cathedral in her head.

So, grafted into a Matrix– or Gattaca-style future of 3D printers and information streams and empty-headed sort-of-secular monks are chunks of history about the Paraguayan genocides, and the historical doubleness of that country – the native Guaraní and the Spanish, a musical tradition and a literary one. Mira A is moving towards a mental state where pain and exaltation can shadow each other, where freedom is suffering, where now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face.

Barker has always been a visionary writer – visionary in style, with past and present interpenetrating in dream and hallucination. But her interest in religious visions and theology here comes to the fore. It’s not a novel about the sinister politics of an informational or technological panopticon, or about mind control and language: it’s a novel about God.

And my word, does Barker chuck the kitchen sink in – if Mira A is her Julian of Norwich or Teresa of Avila, she is one in the grip of an astonishing syncretism. H(A)PPY combines mention of Krishna, St John, Paraguayan folk religion, New Age ideas about the golden ratio and the resonances of specific musical frequencies (when Mira A gets her 3D printer to spit out an 8Hz tuning fork, she’s really in business), and the eighth-century hexachordic hymn Ut queant laxis (ut, re, mi, fa, so, la).

As I say, Barker is not remotely like any other writer. With its typographical jiggering about (words really do change colour, and some pages have blocks of identical text or no text at all), and its favouring of symbols and ideas over characters, setting and story, it’s more like a poem or artwork than a novel. Still, it’s quite something. I’m just not sure what.

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