Nicola Barker’s new novel is set in Luton. You could hardly find a place in Britain more emblematic of non-being. It has an airport; it used to make something or other, it is not in London, not in the Midlands; its architecture is frightful, its pretentious but tatty hotels are full of middle management businessmen, its streets full of Vauxhalls driven by men with delusions and tattoos. It’s true Barker territory: the utterly grotesque sheltering amongst the banal.
The action of the novel, which is wide-ranging and hasn’t what might be described as a plot, centres on a drunken golfer, Stuart Ransom, still a minor celebrity, who has unplumbed depths of self-esteem, despite the fact that he has the nervous disorder focal dystonia, known as ‘the yips’, is bankrupt, and his manager, a hilariously funny Jamaican woman, is due to have a baby at any moment.
Stuart is lodging in a Luton hotel. The part-time barman, who also reads meters, is Gene, who has survived serious cancer seven times. He is married to a lady vicar, very troubled by her calling, but with imagined artistic leanings. Jen, the barmaid, 19, has ‘three Es at A-level, but a PhD in bullshit’.
She is a fantasist of a very high order who never stops talking: a veritable gushing fountain of words. Also in the story is a woman who was struck by a golf ball, launched by Ransom, and has gone mad and become incontinent. She claims to hate her cats, once her passion, and — worse — she now imagines she is French and called Frédérique. Her cod French is wonderful. Understandably, she is causing her daughter, Valentine, a pubic-area tattooist, absolute hell. Apparently some women, many of them Japanese, like a tattooed facsimile of a modest growth of pubic hair where they haven’t any. Maybe Nicola Barker made this up. I hope so.
There are more characters — many more, including a Muslim sex therapist — in this unrelenting torrent of dialogue and farce, which rolls on for over 500 pages. But there is a very serious talent and a very serious intent behind this apparent gallimaufry. Barker captures — and lovingly distorts — both the rhythms and the banality of language. She is, as it were, Harold Pinter on crack.
Her prose is suffused with the surreal. Sheila, the vicar, describes to Valentine her Damascene conversion:
‘Well, I was sitting on the train, it was fairly empty, not peak hour or anything and I had my back to the engine. I’d been enjoying a book…. I sort of de-focused. Then the door at the far end of the carriage opened and a woman — a British Rail employee — came trundling into the compartment with a drinks trolley. The trolley made that loud, jiggling-clinking-clanking sound as she shoved it along. She pushed it down the middle of the carriage towards me. I was still holding my half-eaten apple. And as she approached I just…’ Sheila’s voice breaks slightly. ‘I saw God. I just saw God, moving towards me in a kind of heatwave with the woman and the drinks trolley . . . and that was that, my old life was over.’
Another scene, when Gene goes to read a meter, involves a rat swimming around in a bath, watched by five cats. There is no obvious meaning to this incident, no explanation of how the rat came to be on the verge of drowning until Gene saves it. I thought of Pinter’s remark about the weasel under the cocktail cabinet. It’s unsettling and funny — and that is Barker’s inimitable style.