H(A)PPY, by Nicola Barker, is the second book I’ve read as part of the Women’s Prize Shadow Jury this year. It’s different in almost every conceivable way from most of the other Women’s Prize longlisted titles that I’ve read so far; primarily, as readers should by now expect from Barker, it’s much more formally challenging. Which is to say, H(A)PPY looks weird. Right from the start—as certain words are highlighted in blue, or red, or pink, or a slightly darker shade of pink—all the way through to the end, by which point the text is in a state of permanent breakdown, riddled with images and figures. (There is a magnificent page of a cathedral, of sorts, composed of typographical symbols; on another page, words appear to be literally floating in bubbles. Barker won the Goldsmiths Prize, which is awarded for the most formally inventive book of the year, but I reckon whoever did her typesetting ought to win some sort of award too.) The plot is minimal, but revolves around Mira A, an inhabitant of a utopian future Earth where The Young are cared for, and relentlessly surveilled, via The Information Stream and The Graph. (There are a Lot of Capitals. I am pretty sure they are Satirical.) Mira A’s brain, however, seems not to work seamlessly in conjunction with the Graph, and H(A)PPY is a story, ultimately, about what constitutes happiness, and what freedom. Into this fairly standard speculative plot is woven information about Augustín Barrios, a famed Paraguayan guitarist, to whose story Mira A—also a guitarist, of a sort, since she plays a perfected version of the instrument—is drawn.
I think I understand, in a general sense, what Barker is going for: an interrogation of the relationship between perfection and art, best represented by Mira A’s relationship with her instrument, as she tunes and untunes it, makes it imperfect and then perfects it again. (It’s this sort of behaviour that brings her to the attention of the authorities.) What I don’t quite understand is the evident disconnect between the formal inventiveness and the underlying ordinariness of the plot. It’s not a particularly interesting or unusual story: Helpless Rebel Cast Out Of Deceptive Utopia powers plots from Nineteen Eighty-Four through to The Matrix. (Candide might even qualify. Dicuss.) There are two questions a book has to answer to justify its existence: why this story, and why this way? Barker seems much more interested in the second question than in the first, and although her focus as an author is entirely her own prerogative, it gives the impression of there being a missing step, somewhere.
You know what it’s like when you’re happily munching away on a pastry, a muffin perhaps, and suddenly—unexpectedly—you hit a raisin? (Don’t @ me if you love raisins; maybe the equivalent scenario for you is a walnut in a brownie, or shredded coconut on a cake.) And you’re like Goddammit, this raisin has just ruined my bite, but you keep calm and remove the raisin and carry on eating the pastry. And then, not three chews later, there’s another bloody raisin, and now eating the muffin has become an exercise in wariness, but you can never be vigilant enough and every new raisin just knocks you for six all over again?
That’s what the experience of reading Greeks Bearing Gifts is like, except for raisins, substitute blink-inducing misogyny, fatphobia, and ageism.
I was sort of hoping that my first experience with a Philip Kerr novel was going to be completely great, á la Robert Harris, whose work I found surprisingly compelling last summer. Greeks Bearing Gifts is Kerr’s thirteenth thriller starring Bernie Gunther, an erstwhile—and reluctant—detective under the Nazis in Berlin (he does not like being reminded of this), now trying to go straight in post-war Europe. The plot of this one involves the theft of all the gold belonging to the Jewish population of Salonika in the ’40s, an insurance claim on a burned-out sailboat, and bribery and corruption at the highest levels of Greek and German government. It’s complicated, there’s a lot of double-crossing, and Kerr writes satisfyingly noir-ish dialogue, even if it does get a bit self-conscious at times. (Gunther is so relentlessly cynical that it borders on the parodic.) But the sexism! All female characters are described in terms of their sexual value to Gunther. If they are approximately his age or older, they are worthless; if they are ten years or more younger than he is, they are voluptuous, panting beauties. Women are also, apparently, liars (they can’t help it), and there’s one particularly nasty line about women being like tortoises (the punchline, in case you can’t work it out, has to do with being on your back). For a while I thought this must be meant as a sign of the times (the book is set in 1957), but it went on and on, and as it mostly comes from Gunther—a character we’re meant to see as a loveable anti-hero—it’s difficult to determine whether we’re to take it as his actual opinion, or as a kind of wry tongue-in-cheek attitude. Either way, asking a reader to overlook that aspect of Gunther’s character is asking a lot. Elli, the love interest (you will be pleased to learn that it all comes to naught), at one point tells Gunther how nice he is. Reader, he is not nice—and no, a fictional detective doesn’t need to be pleasant, but to be repeatedly informed, both explicitly and implicitly, that Gunther is merely a charming cynic is to feel that the book, and the author, are somehow gaslighting you. It’s not cool.
After the relentless masculinity of Bernie Gunther, Elizabeth J Church’s novel All the Beautiful Girls was something of a relief. Church tells the story of Lily Decker, who transcends a tragic childhood (parents die in a car accident; the aunt who raises her is cold and the uncle is a child molester) to become a high-earning showgirl in Las Vegas under the name Ruby Wilde. It’s a story with solid forward momentum: Lily’s childhood has left her vulnerable to predatory men, dependent on self-harm to quell the constant tide of shame and loathing inside her, and unable to trust the good intentions of her friends. With the help of the man who killed her parents – whose guilt is such that he provides for Lily as if she were his daughter – she begins to learn the consequences of abuse in childhood and to connect her trauma with her later behavior. Church’s writing isn’t quite strong enough for this to happen without all the seams showing; every time Lily has a moment of growth, it’s signposted, in case readers can’t see it on their own. The descriptions of Las Vegas in the ’70s, however, are great: the way it caters to middle America’s nostalgia for simpler times, the glitter and the glamour masking a culture stubbornly unwilling to engage with the pace of social change. The sorority of showgirls is especially well drawn; Lily’s friends, Vivid and Rose, sometimes feel more believable than she does.
Thoughts on this week’s reading: A slow week, not helped by the enormity of Greeks Bearing Gifts and my reluctance with it. Still trying to balance proofs with Women’s Prize reading, too.