H(a)ppy by Nicola Barker review – life in a world without stories

Nicola Barker’s kaleidoscopic new novel is a socio-political futurama with a wildness and honesty all of its own

What wonders there are in Nicola Barker’s bewildering, fatiguing and deliciously stimulating new novel, and what colours would those adjectives appear in had they been processed by The Graph, the all-seeing, nearly all-controlling system that monitors citizens’ emotions and accordingly represents them in pinks, reds, blues and purples? The more dramatic the emotion, the stronger the colour – but rather than indicating a welcome concentration of excitement or pleasure, such variations are to be repudiated: in Barker’s brave new world – whether a dystopia or a utopia is a moot point – stability, calm and neutrality are prized above all else.

This is the post-history, post-pain, post-individual world of The Young, who have traded what the uninitiated might view as their liberty for membership of a moderated, soothed and protected group consciousness. Sexual desire, grief, regret, hope, ambition – all are things of the past, or would be, should The Past still be permitted to exist. As “characters” on the page, even their physicality is dubious; despite mentions of hand, chairs, clothes, light, they read as if strangely and disturbingly disembodied.

As in any good futurama, there is always a fly in the ointment, and here it is Mira A, a musician who is following her path as one of The Young’s “creatives” – although it is a very damped-down and curtailed version of creativity, especially given that all instruments have been made into perfect versions of themselves – when her graph begins to oscillate. Cue many of the tropes of the socio-political fantasy genre: the individual’s gradual realisation of the extent of the structure binding them; that structure’s attempts to smother and thwart any challenges to its totalitarianism; the emergence of a shadowy, and possibly doomed, resistance.

But Barker has even bigger prey in her sights. H(a)ppy – the bracketed “a” denotes a wrinkle in Mira A’s unambiguously upbeat emotional life – is concerned primarily with the destruction of narrative that is the inevitable consequence of The System. As Mira A’s minder tells her, all the stories we recognise – “narratives of family and romance and adventure, the masculine and the feminine narratives, the narratives of class, of nationalism, of capitalism, of socialism, of faith and myth and mystery, historical narratives, science fiction narratives, experimental narratives, horror narratives, literary narratives, ‘reality’ narratives, crime narratives” – must be deconstructed in order for their true purpose, “to comfort and pander and bolster and reassure”, to be grasped. “To understand them is to disable them. It’s how we stay safe.”

In a literary-critical context, such statements might be seen as part of the ongoing argument about the inherently bourgeois nature of the novel – and to some extent, Barker riffs on this, echoing and quoting literary styles and situations, disrupting the words on the page – via those coloured inks, blank pages, typographic games – in a manner that traces a line from Laurence Sterne to avant-gardists such as BS Johnson, Deborah Levy and Tom McCarthy. And, indeed, Barker herself, who in novels such as Behindlings, Darkmans and The Yips has delighted in the play and tension that messing with the rulebook affords.

But H(a)ppy ventures far beyond a retread of narratological theory. As it progresses, it begins to introduce competing and counter-narratives – most significantly, that of real-life Paraguayan guitarist Agustín Barrios, whose music was deeply influenced by Bach, and who also adopted the pseudonym Nitsuga (Agustin backwards) when he wished to dress and perform in traditional Guarani manner, whether to drum up business or out of a more sincere identification with his indigenous heritage.

In the face of such colliding stories, characters and frames of reference, time expands, and culture itself – dominant and sophisticated or folk-based and suppressed – becomes a kaleidoscope, constantly shifting, fracturing and rejuvenating. When it is too powerful, as Barker notes in historical interpolations, it is constrained, as in the Paraguayan attack on the Guarani people through the banning of their language.

One of the many questions that H(a)ppy poses is how we recognise what and where we are in the system, and the extent to which we are able to influence and lay claim to our own narratives. “I can’t bear it! I can’t bear it! I must tell the story of myself! I must tell it even if – in all likelihood – it isn’t even my story but the story of someone else. I must tell it! I must! I must!” So thinks Mira A two-thirds of the way through the novel, but whose story might she have appropriated, or had inflicted upon her? If art is – as one of her images suggest – a cathedral, how do we walk out of the door once we’ve stopped believing in it?

Any description of H(a)ppy can only fail to do justice to its wildness and its honesty. It is a superb novel by a genuinely experimental and committed novelist. In Barker’s hand, narrative, however fragile, not only survives but thrives.

• H(a)ppy by Nicola Barker is published by William Heinemann (£20). To order a copy for £17 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Alex Clark

The GuardianTramp

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