Saturday, August 07, 2010

Clear by Nicola Barker

How is a writer to write about the very contemporary? It's an interesting question, and one that rarely gets answered in the history-centric subjects of much literary fiction. Reading "Clear" by Nicola Barker, I was surprised that it is now 6 years old, published in 2004, when it was longlisted for the Booker. It's still just about "contemporary" then - though it's narrator's interest in, and then boredom with the novelty that is the "iPod" just about stops it from being anachronistic. Barker's sizzling prose has always had a liveliness about it that echoes London writers like Martin Amis and Julian Barnes, and in this case, her young, male narrator, Adair Graham MacKenny seems reminiscent of say, "The Rachel Papers" and "Talking it Over."

Adair is an administrator working on the South Bank and so unable to ignore the summer of 2003 media event, of David Blaine, the illusionist, suspended in a glass box for 44 days. Like a medieval saint, this show attracts the bored, the curious, the lonely and the abusive. Adair stands in the crowd, chatting up women, one of whom, the distant and damaged Aphra, he becomes involved with. But it is not Barker's small cast of weird characters who dominate the novel, but Blaine in his box. Adair tries to get closer to the meaning of it all through copious readings from Blaine's biography.

If Houdini has been catnip for novelists for years, Blaine seems an entirely less interesting character. His illusions have a cynicism about them as well as a showmanship. In keeping with the age, Blaine is the central theme of his own piece. The fact is, even six years on, I had only the vaguest memory of the Blaine media-storm, perhaps overshadowed by that more recent study in boredom, Anthony Gormley's "One and Other." Written at speed following the Blaine stunt, its hard, from a distance of a few years, to see what drew Barker to this. The novel is called "Clear" and subtitled "a transparent novel", and it's an experimental work, full of digression, and with the thinnest of plots, that reminds one more of an Aldomovar movie or (it's nearest stylistic cousin) the scabrous media satire "Nathan Barley."
Barker does a great job of sketching a soulless lonely age, where nothing, not art, not work, not sex has any real meaning. There is love in the novel, but it is of a damaged kind - and the overwhelming emotion is the loneliness of the contemporary city, where we are strangers even to our work colleagues, housemates, and sexual partners, find more empathy in the blank celebrity of the Blaine publicity stunt.

It was an engaging read, and I realise I need to read more of Barker's recent work (particularly the epic "Darkmans") as she's one of our most interesting novelists. "Clear" is an oddity, it's central act already a piece of historical marginalia.

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