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The Ambivalence of Laughter: the Development of Nicola Barker's Grotesque Realism.

And we're bringing it along. We're getting all Dickensian again. All Rabelaisian, all 'how's yer father." --Nicola Barker, Clear

Put your finger up to the spines and trace the point at which--just before Pat Barker--Nicola Barker's books begin to appear on the fiction shelves of the library or bookshop. Mark that almost hidden point, as the place where a discontinuity from the mainstream occurs. Her profile has been rising recently, but the nature of Barker's achievement does not seem any clearer to critics. Her last London Review of Books reviewer (like many readers before him) smells Dickens, and hints backhandedly that we may just have a great writer here in the making, but his uncertainty seems also very clear:
 Nicola Barker is Dickensian not so much because she is a maverick
 recorder or caricaturist of oddballs and grotesques, but because her
 sensibility is starkly oppositional: there are the bad guys (the
 classes) and the good (the marginal, but rich-in-life). She cares a
 In eight novels she has never repeated herself: it may be that
 hardly started. If she can allow that hers is a talent that works
 in a benign than a combative mood, then Burley Cross Postbox Theft
 may not be the throwaway it seems but the beginning of an expansion
in a
 potentially great comic novelist. (1) 

The 'Dickensian' label (even redefined as 'oppositional') needs a pinch of salt here: it is so often used to mask or promote 'eccentricity' and to shunt an author into a siding. Dickens's own reputation has not always been that of a great writer, and it seems here for James Lever, that all is still in the balance in Barker's work, unless she can relax her earnestness and give reign to her 'purely comic' genius. In a moment in which neo-realism (in Philip Hensher, say, and Jonathan Franzen) is making another bid for the centre ground, it might be worth having another look at the contours of Barker's work.

So far what we have is ten books: two collections of largely London-based short stories, Love Your Enemies (1993) and Heading Inland (1996), and a clutch of novels that have been steadily getting more ambitious. Classification has often used settings: we begin with the enigmatic working-class novel, set around a London betting-shop and dog-track, Reversed Forecast (1994), proceed to the beautifully-judged Small Holdings (1995), set in a North East London Park. After that, there's a leap in ambition and a move outside London to the first of what has been dubbed her 'Gateway Trilogy': the novel Wide Open (1998), which is set on the Isle of Sheppey and includes many aspects of the later novels' thematic content, but still retains the early style. Next comes Five Miles From Outer Hope (2000), a novel set in the Scilly Isles, which looks at first sight like a one-off, but I think is the breakthrough into the territory of her later grotesque hyperbolic style. Then the 2002 very demanding, but magnificent, continuation of the so-called trilogy: Behindlings, set this time on Canvey Island, again in the Thames Estuary. After that, an apparent diversion, a shorter and more occasional-looking work, Clear (2005), a 'transparent novel' as its disingenuous subtitle claims, a novel set back in London, based around the stunt of David Blaine, who had himself hoisted in a transparent cube above the Thames for 44 days without food and water. I say apparent diversion, because this novel, if judged by style and not setting, retains and develops the later style initiated in Five Miles. Finally, we have the formidable Darkmans (2007), set in the town of Ashford, Kent, a town which has become well-known as 'Ashford International', the last or first stop on Eurostar. But Barker's is an Ashford of a quite different kind, a medieval Ashford, lurking beneath the roundabouts and compulsory purchase orders of property for the new railway to Europe. This novel forms the climax of the trilogy of novels set in the 'Thames Gateway', and adds a layer of Gothic "darkness" to the parameters of the Grotesque. Beyond that, the most recent novel (2010) is a manic adventure in epistolary form, set in a Yorkshire village, The Burley Cross Post-Office Theft.

This corpus of work represents a startling achievement in fiction. One of the symptoms of the originality of the novels is that it is difficult to chart a way between one book and the next. Each book seems to set its own terms; texts are not easy to relate to each other. And yet there are strong thematic aspects of the early work from the 1990s, which follow on into the later, more challenging, more substantial books, and provide some tracks into this puzzling and disorientating territory. In what follows, I want briefly to examine the consistency of some of these thematic aspects of the early work, and to then relate them to features of style and the relationship with the reader in the later work.

The Grotesque Body: Some Contexts

Barker's work (and Dickens's work, too) is the product of a long tradition, which goes back to the pre-history of the novel genre in early parody and the "doubling" of high cultural forms in late Roman popular literature. (2) In the modernist context, Bakhtin's account of the discourse of this long tradition strikes an immediate chord with Joyce's comic interest in the relation between discourse and the body in Ulysses. For Barker's continued post-Joycean focus on the Grotesque Body, the most obvious source is Bakhtin's classic account of Rabelais. (3) The Grotesque is a style of representation, which insists, whatever the ostensible context, on the Body; and on what Bakhtin calls 'the material bodily lower stratum'. Its medium is parody; but Bakhtin maintains that this is a popular tradition in the medieval period. Not a tradition of intellectual satire, but a joyful and a utopian form of laughter which promotes 'free becoming'. He talks about how writers like Rabelais were not in thrall to such gloomy categories as 'eternity', but were freed by:
 ... the gay and laughing aspect of the world, with its unfinished
 and open character, with the joy of change and renewal. This is why
 the medieval parodies were not formal and negative satires of sacred
 texts or of scholarly wisdom; they merely transposed these elements
 into the key of gay laughter, into the positive material bodily
 Everything they touched was transformed into flesh and matter and
 at the same time was given a lighter tone (83). 

And he quotes Rabelais' character Friar John who utters 'a Latin sentence characteristic of medieval grotesque': Ad formam nasi cognoscitur ad te levavi, 'by the shape of my nose you will know (how) I lift up', which is a parody of the Vulgate, Psalms 121, which the Protestant Bible knows as: 'I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills'. Clearly the old sexual joke about noses, penises and erections (Lat: levare), is used to debunk a sacred text; the exalted movement upwards in the rhetoric is converted to a movement down into the material sphere of the body, and so on.

Rabelais, insists Bakhtin, shows all the time that there is nothing in the sound and form of language that can escape the ambivalence created by this association with the body, and that this is what makes the grotesque into a form which celebrates freedom. And laughter of this kind, through its universality and freedom, had another important trait: its relation to 'the people's unofficial truth':
 The serious aspects of class culture are official and authoritarian;
 they are combined with violence, prohibitions, limitations and
 always contain an element of fear and intimidation. These elements
 prevailed in the Middle Ages. Laughter, on the contrary, overcomes
 fear, for it knows no inhibitions, no limitations. Its idiom is never
 used by violence and authority. (90) 

Laughter is a victory not only 'over the mystic terror of God', but also over the awe inspired by the forces of nature and most of all over the oppression and guilt related to all that was consecrated and forbidden ("mana" and "taboo") (90). The 'defeat of fear' is presented in 'a droll and monstrous form', the symbols of power and violence turned inside out, the comic images of death and bodies gaily rent asunder. All that was terrifying becomes grotesque: Hell has burst and has poured forth abundance.

Bakhtin also suggests that historically, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment transferred the grotesque to a subjective sphere, which became what he calls the Romantic grotesque. Here, there is an overlap between the Gothic and the Grotesque. Unlike the Medieval and Renaissance grotesque, the genre acquired a private "chamber" character and was 'marked by a vivid sense of isolation' (37). He quotes the German Sturm und Drang, as a movement in which the Romantic grotesque is strong, and from this point on, fear is imported back into the grotesque: 'The images of the Romantic grotesque usually express fear of the world and seek to inspire their reader with this fear: (38) It is the strength of Barker's grotesque that she is able to combine popular and intellectual traditions, retaining that traditional fearless, utopian drive in her images of bodily life.

Early Examples: Counting up Your World

Barker begins by writing about adolescents, or people in a state of incomplete consciousness of themselves, having been dominated by something two-dimensional which they have never questioned: a husband, or a friend or a set of rules and conventions. Many of these characters are female. Barker's first scenarios bring such characters to the point of consciousness, a point at which they ask the question, 'Where do I fit in?'

There is a scene in the novel Small Holdings, (4) in which the narrator, Phil, a twentysomething, still in the grip of a dreamy adolescent self-consciousness, tries to encompass the world he works in, a recently-privatised park in Palmers Green, North East London. Phil goes round the little universe he has been tending, seeking to eradicate the distance he feels from it, by enumerating in it all the things he has tended as a gardener, touching them intimately as he goes. But once he's finished enumerating the pond and the oaks, the flowerbeds and the greenhouses, he discovers there's no place for him. Phil is like a God who's invented the world, only to discover he has no place in it.

Phil is attempting this exercise in Zen because of a violent set of farcical events which have led to the death of Cog, the Park's resident ginger Tom and it has fallen to the hapless Phil to bury him. Suddenly, while contemplating his exclusion from his world, Phil sees Cog before him on the path. The cat, who has soil in his fur and thus is not a vision, immediately rolls on to his back and offers his belly for stroking and then 'saunters off, his jaunty little bollocks to the rear, and well-balanced like a sprig of cherries.' (80) This is the moment in which Phil suddenly decides to become someone else:
 Seeing the cat, like that, resurrected. It was so curious. Could I
 someone else? Temporarily? Could I be someone else altogether?
 ... Yes I could be. I could be un-Phil. Out-of-Phil. Un-fool-filled.
 Yes. (80) 

It is the cat who carries the grotesque bodily charge of the resurrected body here, with the 'jaunty little bollocks', but it's Phil who takes the point: the Zen quest has been interrupted by an ethic of self-invention and the question 'Where do I fit in?' has been answered by Phil himself, out of Cog: 'anywhere you like:

This revelation is the beginning of the end for the old Phil, not the end: there is a great deal of mayhem for out-of-Phil along the way, not least through his demonic one-legged mentor, Saleem, who delivers the novel's grotesque erotic climax in a remarkable sequence of denouement, which I have no space here to discuss. (5)

Barker's early grotesque takes many forms--the body is the focus, but the utopian challenge of self-invention is the scenario, in which the moment of liberation is set, a kind of 'gap' in people's lives, in which her characters suddenly think of themselves differently. Take the characters in Love Your Enemies, (6) her first book of stories. In the first story, 'Layla's Nose Job', Layla Carter has a nose two inches longer than anyone else's; the story details her agony and distress, in the way she's put upon by everybody, but also the way she puts upon herself. A therapist explains the castration complex, but it makes no difference. The eventual nose job makes no difference either, except it means things appear visually further away: she feels 'like Pinocchio' (11) after her father, Larry, says she's 'no longer his little elephant girl' (10); and dreams of being 'a tiny little elephant, but she was without a trunk.' (11) The story leaves her in the kitchen, having just accidentally sliced her egg to pieces, considering 'her options': which include, whether to castrate Larry, or cut the nose off altogether. Layla has entered the world.

Another scenario: Owen, an adolescent butcher's apprentice on a first day's work trial, is ritually mocked by his mentors, who persuade him a piece of meat is a living tumour. Owen believes them: he enters into an emotional ordeal smuggling the tumour home and nursing it all night, caring for it as it slowly dies and then secretly burying it in the garden. Next morning, when his mother asks him how his first day went, he says he's decided to become a postman. This is a deadpan joke, but it has the same structure: Owen, through the grotesque gate of the body has entered the world.

There is a grotesque aspect to events themselves in these stories; people suddenly manoeuvre themselves into spaces of change, crises, often through not knowing what they are doing. 'Skin', 'Food with Feeling', 'Symbiosis: Class Cestoda', and 'Country Matters' are all based around this kind of scenario. Even private fictions about the body, like the tumour, are taken for granted as necessities. Farce is an aspect of the collection's grotesque, often involving the body. Take 'Dual Balls' for example, a story of female friendship in the culturally barren 'Grunty Fen' in remote Cambridgeshire, in which her 'dominant and rather light-headed friend' (95), Joanna, is 'the bale of hay in Selina's field' (96), which would otherwise remain featureless, so impeccable is the hardworking schoolteacher's life. In a conspiracy with her (in turn) dominant husband Tom, Joanna dares Selina to conduct a class at the primary school with a mailorder battery-driven sex-toy inside her. What Joanna, having tried them out and almost driven off the road, doesn't tell Tom, who assumes they are useless, is that the dual balls of the title actually do have remarkable powerful sexual effects. Nervously, Selina puts them in and switches them on in the toilets. During the short walk to her classroom 'the balls felt like an inordinately large bluebottle whizzing round, lost inside her knickers.' (109) As planned, the children have not arrived, but lo and behold, the headmistress, Felicity, is there, sitting in the front row, wanting a discussion about Selina's career. A series of farcical misunderstandings follow, in which the strict and severely proper Selina's involuntary orgasm is interpreted by the headmistress as a gush of genuine passion about her career, and Felicity resolves to promote her as her successor. Even here, the forces of ignorance and convention are the means by which the frustratedly ambitious but unconfident Selina, by accepting the risk of a joke on her that backfires, invents a new future for herself. This story is part of a continuous, post-feminist parody of identity politics, which is taken for granted throughout these stories.

The discursive frame of these early comic scenarios is witty and sharp, but confines itself to the reportage of events, essentially using grotesque farce as an entrance to 'free becoming'. Remaining for a moment on the level of style, in my view, the "break-through" text is not Wide Open, the first of the Gateway trilogy written in 1998, but the lesser novel, Five Miles From Outer Hope (2000). In many ways, Wide Open is bursting out of its own narrative discourse. Dealing with a question inherited from Ionesco, that of whether two people can live the same life in separate bodies, that novel deliberately (and experimentally) puts maximum strain on the methods of reportage and the grotesquerie of events of the early phase I've been talking about. (7) The utopian drive towards freedom of the traditional Grotesque, which her early work has succeeded in tapping into so consistently, combined with Barker's interest in mysticism, already manifest in the Zen undercurrent (bookended in epigraphs from Shan-hui and Lieh-tzu) of Small Holdings, are reflected in the title of this extraordinary novel, Wide Open, which follows the tradition of 'Bakhtin's 'double body' of the grotesque, in which the body is open to the cosmos. (8)

But I have no space to demonstrate this point. Instead, let me give a retrospective glimpse of the Barkerian future, let me quote a typical passage from the discourse of Medve, the doughty "giantess" and first-person narrator of Five Miles, (9) who constructs herself (in her 1981 mode) before our very eyes:
 Medve is Hungarian for bear, which, when you think about it, is
 pretty fucking grizzly. And don't ask me how to pronounce it. I
 will inflate and then I will gently burst. And it will be messy,
 because I am built like a shire horse. Six foot three in my
 crocheted stockings. I am huge
. Sixteen years old in 1981,
 with a tongue taut and twisted as a tent-hook and two tremendous
 hands like flat meat racquets.
 My serve, I think. (7) 

Medve uses the stand-up comic's routine addiction to stress, a kind of mime in language, which will eventually yield diminishing returns. But hers is expanded polyphonic narration, fully dialogic, fully obscene, fully billingsgate, as Bakhtin would say, in which the reader is facing the narrator as a nightmare opponent across a tennis net, an analogy for dialogue famously used by both Beckett and Nabokov and knowingly reprised here. We are looking here at the future character of Barker's narration: and, from here on in, it is no longer going to be well-behaved:
 My clitoris, you'll be pleased to know, is as well-defined as
 rest of me. It's the approximate size of a Jersey Royal. But
 whenever I try and mash
 it (don't sweat, I know these
 particular potatoes are determined boilers
, but flow
 with the analogy, for once, why don't you?), all I can think
 is Mr Michael Heseltine MP eating an overripe peach on a missile
 site somewhere deep in the South Downs--or the general
 vicinity--juice on his tie, shit on his shoes. Am I ringing a bell?
 Do you think this might mean
 something? (13) 

Medve's italics are to pepper the novels to come, and pretty soon they will also be used to signify the simultaneous presence of a stream of consciousness, embedded in the roman of a third-person discourse, a process in which thinking is often deliberately opposed to speaking so that the same person is thinking "dog" and saying "cat". The discourse itself has become hyperbolic, its texture is formally grotesque: Medve, in her callow dependency on the despised opponent, the reader, produces a finely-contrived collapse in the ambivalence between neediness and defiance in her last question ('Do you think this might mean something?') and manufactures an excess of language, varnished with anxious (encyclopaedic (10)) pedantry and adolescent contempt. She is just the beginning of a textual expansion into fictional self-consciousness which is neither realist nor post-modern, but which treats the mouth as the centre of the grotesque body and the baroque quicksilver of the speaking voice as its major symptom.


(1) James Level 'Unshutuppable', London Review of Books, September 9, 2010, 27.

(2) See M. M. Bakhtin, 'From the Pre-History of Novelistic Discourse', in The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1981), 41-84.

(3) All references to M. M. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky, (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 1968). Quotations followed by page refs in text.

(4) All references to Nicola Barker, Small Holdings (London: Faber, 1995).

(5) But which the reader will find on pp.109-112.

(6) Nicola Barker, Love Your Enemies (London: Faber, 1993). All references to this edition.

(7) Nicola Barker, Wide Open (London: Faber, 1998), 8. This question haunts the opening chapters by the 'Two Ronnies'. The tone of the dialogue is not celebratory, but baffled and opaque:
 '... You said you knew someone in Sheppey.'
 Ronnie frowned. 'What?'
 'You're the person I know in Sheppey'.
 'But we only just met'.
 The other Ronnie cleared his throat. 'Same people', he
 'different lives'. (32) 

(8) The title plays on 'wide open spaces' (e.g. the skies of Sheppey) and the vulnerability of a person turned towards them, opening their bodies (and thus souls): 'And he simply hadn't felt right with Laura after that. In fact, he felt wide open. A moth with its wings pinned, under the microscope. A girl with her legs spread, no knickers'. Nicola Barker, Wide Open (London: Faber, 2008), 61. The character is vulnerable; but at the same time the lens of the organism is opened to its widest extent. Compare the following passage from Bakhtin: '[The grotesque ...] is looking for that which protrudes from the body, all that seeks to go out beyond the body's confines ... But the most important of all human features for the grotesque is actually reduced to the gaping mouth ... the other features are only a frame encasing this wide-open bodily abyss'. Bakhtin, Rabelais, 316.

(9) All references to Nicola Barker, Five Miles From Outer Hope (London: Faber, 2000).

(10) For some comment on the encyclopaedism of Rabelais, see Bakhtin, Rabelais, 110.
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Title Annotation:Special Issue: British Contemporary Fiction
Author:Sage, Victor
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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