About every five or ten pages, all the way through Nicola Barker’s new novel, The Yips, someone “scowls”. Every single character does it, at the mildest provocation. All the characters “wince” a lot, too. The reader winces and scowls along with them. But The Yips is in fact so verbally repetitious that one ceases to believe in the possibility of accident and starts to look, in amazement, for some kind of deliberate scheme. By page 14, three different characters have done three different things “fastidiously”. Surely, of all words, “fastidious” isn’t being repeated carelessly — it must be some intentional irony. Waiting for “fastidious” to reappear becomes a chief page-turning interest (without spoiling the whole thing: on page 104 “Stan winces, fastidiously”). What is this world Nicola Barker has created, full of fastidious, scowling, wincing people, and what does it tell us about our own?
But more repetitions are everywhere. To give just a few more examples: On page 93, “Stan gazes at the golfer, balefully”; on 101, “Noel glares at [Valentine], balefully”. On 139, “Gene’s understandably quizzical”; on 144, Jen “inspects Gene quizzically”. On 129, Esther observes Ransom “with a somewhat jaundiced eye”; on 147, “Ransom cocks a mildly jaundiced eyebrow”. The words being repeated here are all members of what might be thought of as the classical lexicon of British-English comedy — they all possess some intrinsic comic value. But Nicola Barker seems to think this value is unlimited, that simply to know these words, like sorcerers’ spells, is to be an eternal comic genius. She doesn’t notice them lignifying in her unsparing, imprecise hands.
And it’s not just the incontinent repetitions: solecisms (“quickly honing in on”), infelicities (“copious levels of interest”), redundancies (“sneaking a furtive puff”), and mass-casualty train-wreck sentences like this:
[…] Ransom stares around him — tipsy and slightly bewildered — struggling to assess the aesthetic shortcomings of his current environs, then starts, theatrically, at the nightmarish spectre of earth-shattering mediocrity suddenly — quite unwittingly — finds himself party to.
In 2007 Nicola Barker told the Observer: “I pity the reader. I’ve never read one of my books, I just write them, and I’m not sure I would like it at all. Just the feeling of despair…” Indeed, The Yips is riddled with just that particular kind of flaw so easily overlooked by the happy-go-lucky fellow who merely writes a piece of prose. And the effect of this is of course to damage, beyond repair, the faith of that martyred dogsbody, the reader. This is something an author wanting to conduct ambitious experiments with form cannot afford.
The Yips consists, remarkably — and disastrously — almost entirely of dialogue. (Perhaps we owe this to the praise lavished on the dialogue of some of Barker’s previous novels — by critics labouring, with faculties more attuned to TV and film, under the mistaken impression that “good dialogue” is a pillar of the artistic novel.) There is no plot to speak of, just a network of characters gathering — in hotel bars, golf club restaurants, hospital cafés, and each other’s living rooms — to yak. The characters tend to be knocked together according to a type of hysterical-reality formula that feels like a pale imitation of Thomas Pynchon. Take, from the masterpiece V (there’s a bit of flaccid horsing around with the letter v in The Yips, either in homage or by coincidence) the example of Da Conho: a mad Brazilian militant Zionist salad chef in upstate New York. You get the idea — an incongruous, bathetic mix of the exotic and the mundane. So in The Yips we have our agoraphobic hyperrealist tattoo-artist, her brain-damaged mother, the mother’s Muslim sex-therapist, his devout wife, a burnt-out celebrity golfer, his heavily pregnant Jamaican PA, her radical environmentalist sister, and a nine-time cancer-survivor hotel bar-manager and his priest wife. These, and a few others in the same priceless vein, are thrown together in Luton (of all places).
The tight gaps between chunks of direct speech are so overrun by scowls and quizzical looks and jaundiced eyebrows (and also desperate synonyms for the word “says” — “Gene avers”, “Jen avows”, “Ransom expostulates” — themselves repeated over and over) that the narrative prose becomes so graceless it ceases to matter. It’s as if The Yips is not a novel but the script or work-up for a TV sitcom, complete with stage directions, or italicised notes. And this brings us to the very worst thing about it. The reader is constantly being informed that so-and-so is “plainly conflicted”, or “understandably smug”, or “patently astonished”. But to whom is the conflict plain, the smugness understandable, the astonishment patent? Not to fellow characters. This voice is that of the writer responding on behalf of the pitied reader. Bracketed sentences pop up to ram home a joke: “Jen continues (ignoring this cruel — if utterly accurate — assault)”; “The blonde also turns to Toby (before he’s had a proper chance to amass his — no doubt perfectly coherent — thoughts on the matter)”. Can you hear that? It’s the white noise of canned laughter.