Rating 5 stars
I follow Nicola Barker on Twitter. She posts infrequently, but when she does it’s usually oddly satisfying pictures of her view from various London public telephone boxes or things she’s found while mudlarking along the Thames. There’s nothing in her feed that suggests she’s an author, and I didn’t know her as a writer until H(A)PPY was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2018.
The blurb for H(A)PPY intrigued me. The reader is invited to imagine a utopia in which all knowledge is open, and doubt, hatred, poverty and greed no longer exist. Everyone lives within a System that nurtures and protects, part of a Community that nourishes and sustains. There’s no sickness, no death, no fear.
Sounds good? I wasn’t so sure. I like my privacy. I also like that it’s our differences and individualities that cause the negative things that Barker’s post-post-apocalyptic society has banished. I don’t know that I’d enjoy a world without individuality or opportunities to learn.
This is Barker’s twelfth novel. It seemed like as good a place as any to introduce myself to the writing style of the woman who is mildly obsessed with phone boxes.
It’s slippery at times, the tale she’s written, but it kept me wondering what was going on, curious to find out how it would end. I know how it ends now, of course. I’m saying nothing. I’m glad that I didn’t read any reviews, any judging comments, any opinion pieces before I read it. I imagine it might have spoiled the experience. I enjoyed it greatly. I’d recommend it wholeheartedly. If you want to read it with no prior knowledge, don’t read any further here. My reading experience and my reactions to the book might take the edge off the pleasure of this unusual novel.
There’s an author’s note at the start.
Although by no means essential, this novel is best enjoyed in conjunction with Augustus Barrios: The Complete Guitar Recordings 1913-1942.
I tried, but the recording’s not on Spotify and the box set listed on Amazon is currently unavailable.
It’s a good job it’s not essential.
Agostín Barrios features prominently in the story, it’s true, but I don’t feel like I’ve missed out by not listening to his entire recorded work while reading this parable about the twin dangers of Capitalism engendering bastard behaviour and ruining the planet, and the present antidote to stress as favoured by opinion formers, mindfulness, removing any need for any thought beyond the present moment.
An aside: I like mindfulness. I find taking a step out of the circus to reground myself when I need to helps. I don’t want to just be in the moment, though. I also like planning for things, anticipating pleasurable things, and being prepared for less pleasurable things. And I like looking back, too. How else do you get to have a rich life and a sense of who you are in relation to the rest of the world? Well, there you have the nub of Barker’s book. If those things are taken from you and all that’s left is an eternity of positive thinking in a Community of medicated functionaries, eventually human nature is going to throw a spanner in the works, no matter how well engineered those works are.
The novel felt like a parable in the way Magnus Mills novels feel like parables. Something slightly off centre is happening that feels like it should be normal, but also feels like it’s an obscure lesson about something else entirely. Early on, it felt hollow. I found it hard to engage with characters who are encouraged to be balanced to the point of blandness (and The Bland become a theme in their own right), but gradually Mira A, the narrator, displays what can only be described as a personality. She becomes the individual she was born to be, putting her in conflict with the hive around her.
The apocalyptic basis of the story flowed on well from the book I’d just finished reading, The Secret Life of Cows. In H(A)PPY, a catastrophe has befallen the Earth in The Past, caused by humans worshipping numbers and failing to respect the planet that sustained them. I had a wry smile to myself when I read about the cow simulations that The Young tend to on The Farm. Real cows don’t exist in this dystopia because real cows were farmed industrially in The Past and contributed to the catastrophe that befell the Earth. My smile was wry because The Secret Life of Cows touches on the dangers of intensive farming. Barker’s novel is a dystopian extrapolation of Rosamund Young’s concerns.
The book is physically very visual. A variety of colours used in the text make certain words pop out. At first my brain wanted to make links between them, but their frequency and the way some words changed colour meant I soon gave up on that idea. The pops of colour made me think of old bibles and the way God was represented in a colour to stand out from the rest of the black type.
I thought at first that Barker was using colours to symbolise a breakdown in the System. Gradually I realised that the colours related to something different and yet the same.
Mira A is a musician and one of The Young who have been rescued from The Past and set upon The New Path following the apocalypse on Earth. Although she’s not supposed to be interested in The Past, because nothing from The Past has anything good about it, Mira A has been rooting around on The Information Stream and has inexplicably been led to an article about a precious guitar. More than that, she has been able to see something on the margins of a page she looked at, something that should have been pixelated out because it’s irrelevant. This means she’s no longer In Balance. Her chemicals need to be tweaked to counter the Excess of Emotion that might follow and disrupt her ability to be Well Balanced.
It’s horrifying to me, this notion that an entire population is drugged to iron out any excesses and ensure compliance. It’s horrifying because I know that there are people in the world who want excesses to be ironed out and people to be compliant.
The colours in the text link to The Graph. The Graph is a series of interlinked monitoring tools that reveal how calm an individual is, how compliant, how Well Balanced. Words rendered in a particular colour indicate a way in which Mira A’s thoughts affect her Language Graph. The colours telegraph that she is not In Balance.
Barker’s use of The Graph made me think of a particular performance development theory that one of the places I’ve worked at used as a means of homogenising its employees. Aspects of workplace performance are plotted on a set of concentric circles and employees are encouraged to bring different aspects of their performance into line with each other, pushing out to the widest circle possible. It’s a theory that doesn’t allow for prowess in particular areas, for talent, for strengths to exist alongside weaknesses, for different people to be good at different things. Organisations like us all to be the same. Institutions need to know that they are in control. Individuality, unexpected behaviour, threatens that control. That’s what it seemed Barker was getting at with The Graph in this novel.
It made me wonder about if the psychiatric hospital in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a network instead of a hospital, and the entire world made up the patients, would it be like the world Barker presents in H(A)PPY?
And what is it with those parentheses around the a in happy? In the book, Mira A equates them to disambiguation. They’re a glitch.
In writing, parentheses indicate a clarification or an aside. In coding, they’re used to indicate an argument. In maths, they override the normal algebraic order. They’re a disruption, in other words.
So why does Mira A call them a disambiguation in the word happy? What ambiguity are they seeking to make clear? Happy means happy, doesn’t it? I wonder.
Mira A talks about The Young being free to choose whatever they like, but always choosing to comply with the thing that makes them uniform. This, to me, is a situation where happy means something other than happy. Like Stalin’s Russia, the Cultural Revolution in China, or the way of existing in North Korea, it seems to be about fear of what will happen if you do make an individual choice and it goes against what has been decreed as the greater good.
The progress of the book makes it clear that Mira A’s narrative, the novel we are reading, is an illicit narrative. She’s story writing against the rules. She’s also bringing other characters into her story against their will, forcing interventions aimed at bringing her back In Balance. For me, this had elements of WE to it. I’ve yet to read 1984 (I started to read The Road to Wigan Pier once and took agin old Eric Blair) but from what I know of this classic dystopia, as used as shorthand in the media, there are similarities there, too. The relationship between The Young and the technology that monitors and connects them reminded me of the technology in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, as did the Neuro-Mechanical canine Mira A acquires as a way of distracting herself from the narrative she’s developing. Tuck has parallels to the electric animals in Dick’s dystopia.
The visual nature of the book ramped up about halfway through, with a sequence of pages filled with repeated text, punctuated with colour, and carved through with unexplained symbols. The repetition of the text made me think of machine code, command upon command looping in an infinite program, nonsense to most human readers but with meaning for technology. Other visual tricks reminded me of the concrete poetry of Edwin Morgan and the self interrupting spaces and punctuation favoured by e e cummings.
There were moments when I wondered whether the narrator who calls herself Mira A wasn’t living in some dystopian future at all, but instead was suffering a mental collapse in the present, and I in the role of reader was experiencing her perspective on being treated for that collapse. Particularly in the way she slips between first and third person narration and occasionally seems to be separating into two characters, the second character, Mira B, observing the first.
There were times, too, when I thought that the parable wasn’t about Capitalism’s impending fall and its attempts to distract the labourers and the consumers who help its cogs grind everything to nothing by telling them to just be in the moment. There were times when I thought it was about being a woman and the eternal pressure to be a certain kind of woman – quiet, demure, well balanced, unobtrusive – that finds ever changing ways to shame women collectively whenever individual women behave in individual ways and assert their right to be seen and heard in all their truth. The way that men like Kite, Kipp and Powys tell Mira A to behave in particular ways, including being silent and choosing to think differently, struck me as similar to the pile-ons that happen on social media when a woman says something interesting about the world and is then given unasked for advice or told what she actually meant to say. No wonder Mira A explodes with the following words, having attempted to remain silent,
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!
Mira A. Love. I hear you.
And then there were instances where the parable was about the erasure of culture, the writing out of history of people who don’t serve an imperial narrative, whether it’s indigenous peoples in the Americas, Australia, New Zealand or Japan. Barker focuses on the Guaraní of Paraguay, but the strands of history she draws out depressingly could be about the Ainu, the Beothuk, the Tasmanian Aborigines, any one of the peoples murdered by invaders come to claim their land and deny their existence. The links between the historical genocide Mira A encounters on the Information Stream and the eradication of humanity in its pre-apocalypse form aren’t the strongest, but they’re part of the fable Barker has constructed in H(A)PPY that critiques the here and now.
This novel gripped me, entertained me, puzzled me and satisfied me in equal measure. I found it an interesting lens through which to view the times I live in. I’ll be investigating more of her work. The publisher description of Darkmans has caught my eye.