Friday, 11 January 2008

Joker in the pack

by Nicola Barker

Near the beginning of this vast novel there is moment of schadenfreude.

'At approximately the half-way point, his trousers started slipping; the fabric locked just above his knees, and he tumbled. It was a dramatic fall - a jester's fall - with all the additional frills and embellishments.
Beede closed his eyes (in an effort to repress a sharp bark of laughter-

Where did that urge come from?)

- then he turned his face away, waited patiently for a slight lull in the traffic, and moved implacably onward.'

I mention it because it is a good example of a few things which typify this book. There is the textual wordplay, there is the mention of a jester and be assured there is a jester in this novel. Not simply the haunting presence of John Scogin, court jester to Edward IV, whose voice pushes its way into the text and who exerts his influence on several characters like a puppet master but also the author herself who peppers this book with so many nudges and winks that you can almost hear her chuckling away.

Set in Ashford, 'Gateway to Europe', this is, we are told, a very modern novel. But for Barker '
history isn't just something that happened in the past, but a juggernaut with faulty brakes which is intent on mowing you down'. She has given her characters Dickensian names; we have Beede (a venerable man indeed) and his son Kane (a drug dealer) whose relationship is so fractured that their meeting in a restaurant at the beginning of the novel is purely coincidental and they refuse to enlighten each other as to why they might be there. During their stuttered exchange Kane sees a man on a horse, dressed in yellow, but when he looks later to see a man dismounting he has mysteriously changed and become Beede's friend Isidore who may or may not be German but who is definitely suffering from some form of mental illness. Confused? We haven't even begun yet. Isidore's son Fleet is a very special child indeed, having built a replica of a church and medieval village from matches at home and frequently reciting history with more authority than any 4 year old could possibly have. His mother Elen, a chiropodist, seems to exert an extraordinary pull on the men she meets whilst hiding a livid set of bruises on her wrist. Kane's ex-girlfriend Kelly, a fantastic creation, is a foul mouthed chav who hooks up with Kane's henchman Gaffar, a Kurd with an extreme fear of lettuce. And we still have yet to meet the forger Peta Borough (!) who may have an explanation for much that happens in the 838 pages of what is an exhilarating and far from disorganised journey through a couple of days in this less than ordinary town.

It is easy to see why the Booker jury found it difficult to award the prize to a novel that is bursting with so many ideas. Even the text is uncontrollable, punctuated by parenthesis and italicised interruptions from the jesting spirit but as the forger Peta says; '
language won't be restricted. Because language is uncontainable. Like a fast running river. It bubbles up and splashes and spills'. For some it may be a quirk too far but I found it an incredibly unsettling experience to read a text so unrestricted and felt the genuine horror of the characters as they found themselves no longer in control of the words that left their mouths. It is all done with such humour as well. Barker has created some brilliant comic characters in Kelly Broad, daughter of the infamous Dina ('Jabba the Hut with a womb, chronic asthma and a council flat'), whose filthy utterances continue unabated even after she has a close brush with God. Gaffar too provides some classic moments, his frustrations voiced in Kurdish and printed clearly for us to read in bold Gothic type. As he watches the classic documentary Touching The Void with Kane it is Kane who observes 'one irreducible fact is that people who climb mountains are invariably cunts.'

What this all means is harder to decipher but there is plenty of fun to be had with the past, as another character mentions; '
It's a fascinating business. Kind of like solving a crime. Like unravelling a mystery story. All the clues are in the text and your job is simply to sniff them out'. Which isn't to say that it's any fun for the characters involved. Far from it. The jester Scogin is a malevolent influence on this novel as you would expect from a man who became notorious for locking several beggars in a barn and then burning it to the ground.


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