Nicola Barker – The Yips

Nicola Barker – The Yips

Postby CAP » Thu Apr 30, 2015 11:40 am

There’s an array of mainstream reviews for this one but I’d not actually heard of the author or title before I came across it in a local Op-shop. I’m out of touch with recent fiction. The title stood out on a shelf surrounded by Blood Justice, Estimated Time of Death, Hellfire Minstrel, No Survivors, Renegade Assassin, Viking Slave, Zombie Fleshfreak, New Day for a Vampire, Tiny Mass Grave and Grim Reaper IV. The cover blurb suggested it was funny so I got curious. The title does what titles are supposed to do, in other words. And it is amusing but by no means an easy read. The pace is hectic, the path convoluted and the plot, such as it is, chaotic. I enjoyed it quite a lot - more than the Mal Peet, at least. The title refers to sudden loss of form for a golfer and applies firstly to the character Stuart Ransom, a fading professional from Yorkshire, visiting Luton for a local tournament, staying at 'The Thistle' a cheesy, second-rate hotel next to the Arndale Luton Sports Centre. But the endlessly digressive story that flows around Ransom suggests a wider, perhaps divine failure. ‘The Yips’ may equally be the motley assortment of characters that find their lives set off on bizarre tangents on briefly orbiting around Ransom, register their confusion with short involuntary cries, misunderstand and misdirect others.

The book was long listed for the Booker Prize in 2012 but reviews were mixed, finding it not as good as her previous work (she has nine other titles) and I’m assuming it never made it to the short list. But the features critics detected there, while evident enough and valid as criticisms, are not really those that occurred to me upon reading. What struck me most was the emphatic layering or multifaceted aspect to the characters. They are not just rounded, as people, in some cases hardly at all, but rather splintered into multiple roles or tasks, so that for example, the beautiful young Valentine or ‘Vee’ is by turns a devoted carer for her demented mother and although single, a model housewife in an immaculately retro 50s wardrobe, grooming and makeup, a niche tattooist specialising in trompe anatomical corrections (particularly female pubic hair), a deeply insecure acrophobic, surrogate mother for her infant niece, ‘Nessa’ (presumably Vanessa) a handy amateur hairdresser and hoarder of forbidden Nazi holocaust souvenirs. Obviously much of the humour draws on this exaggerated diversity and part of the reason it is funny is because it echoes an insidious strain to society today, the de-skilling, re-skilling workforce that must abandon secure specialisation for opportune versatility, intermittent employment, market survival. We live by so many absurd and fleeting pigeonholes these days.

Other characters are less polyvalent, such as Sheila, an Anglican minister with a background in contemporary art, literature and feminism (one suspects the author has an axe or two to grind there) and strategic Oxbridge connections. Then there is Karim, a Muslim of undisclosed Arabic background, with an independent income (possibly derived from brothels in Calcutta) but eager to work as a sex therapist, as some kind of charitable calling, even in Luton. The least scattered or schizophrenic is actually Ransom, who confesses to a past of surfing and extravagant hair styles but remains adamantly a devoted golfer, albeit one of dwindling ability. In pointed contrast is Eugene or Gene (I don’t believe we ever learn his surname) but initially Gene is introduced as a barman at The Thistle, who has miraculously recovered from cancer seven times. He also works as a toilet attendant somewhere else and elsewhere as a gas meter reader, in which capacity he meets Vee. Gene belongs to a family of distinguished fortune tellers and retains a talent for palmistry although somewhat neglected and is married to Sheila with two adopted teenagers. He is the kind and gentle spirit that Ransom is not. Ransom is the self-absorbed and arrogant artist of the golf links and Gene is eventually prevailed upon to serve as his caddy, in yet another demonstration of his versatility or pliability.

Yet Ransom continually slips to the periphery of the story and this is rightly considered a failing, even in a story given to urgent digression. A digression needs to digress from something. The episodes with Ransom remain somewhat stiff or static, long, brittle dialogues that hardly do the sportsman justice. We need more of the man just doing stuff, to really ‘get’ him. We don’t get it. Mostly we get him trying to read books or argue, which is not quite enough. The real focus to the story becomes the serendipitous meeting of Gene and Vee, forging closer links between the two strands to the plot. The first is Ransom’s visit to Luton, the second, Vee’s mother’s dementia, incurred by being hit in the head by an errant golf ball struck by Ransom on an earlier visit. Gene and Vee are both models of social restraint and altruism, both, as noted, extremely diverse in interests and experience. But Vee is vulnerable in a way Gene is never allowed to be. She is housebound by agoraphobia, stifled by her house pride and carer’s duties to the point of paralysis. She confesses this to Gene and significantly he can only suggest child-like capers as a remedy, as a way of erecting a paternal perspective. He insists upon giving her a piggyback ride to relax her. In a book heavily reliant upon loaded dialogue it is a rare moment of forthright action and it proves both salutary and catastrophic.

After cantering around the house, they proceed confidently across the street by moonlight and into an overgrown garden in a vacant lot where Gene can find no exit in the darkness and pauses exhausted. As Vee slips from his back his hands remain grasping her bared thighs, as her skirt rides up and they both straighten. She embraces him from behind before he turns and they soon fall among mounds of lawn clippings in a giddy sexual climax. It is not just the climax of their relationship though; the book never recovers any momentum thereafter. If the author ever pondered reasons for not making the short list, this fault line is the main one. The episode is brilliant but it literally stops the book in its tracks. The reader never gets back into stride. Gene cannot confess his fling to his wife, Sheila, although in time she learns of it and can forgive him. We never hear too much about Gene’s feelings. But there is no such forgiveness for Vee. She is banished to a Muslim fundamentalist sect via Karim’s burqa-wearing wife Aamilah and her carping sister, in what are among the book’s more tedious passages. Vee must renounce all for an implausibly confined existence. Structurally, it is an interesting exchange. Really, this is to dispose of the artist as young and beautiful all-rounder, the solicitous carer of young and old, the pinch hairdresser, the dutiful housekeeper, just like the one that married dear old dad. All are written down as the price to pay for preserving Gene as beyond temptation, as loyal backstop and stop gap, the Mister Nice Guy so long as you don’t look too good, need too much, catch him at the wrong time.

All the same, Gene is finally left in the lurch when Sheila decides to take up an offer of work in Jamaica. She renounces her career in the church and family for ghost-writing with an environmental activist, Victoria, actually the sister of Ransom’s manager. Sheila’s drift away from the church notably mirrors Vee’s attraction to strictest Islam, reinforcing an implicit equation between the two, with Gene in transaction. Her trajectory is not that of the artist compromised by other duties nor the loyal supportive partner, but rather the pious or righteous facilitator, seeking an effective path. In many ways she is the most serious part of the book and her steady meltdown quickly loses any comic value. Initially, she obsesses about her fringe, trimming it neurotically until it clashes with the rest of her hairstyle, rendering her ridiculous and she knows it. It is a sign, but mainly to others. Her fears actually stem from thwarted ambitions by conservative church superiors and a deep sense of frustration. But these fears undermine the rest of her personality. It is impressive writing, but decidedly uncomfortable reading. Sheila loses focus, becomes intrigued by Vee’s tattoo website and imagines her work ought to be recognised within the world of fine art and attempts to make some connections there. Understanding Vee’s enmity to Ransom (via Gene) she decides a suitable reconciliation would be for Ransom to agree to a tattoo by Vee.

And this is actually what transpires, but not before Sheila has trapped herself in her attic searching through an old trunk of her college belongings, stripped naked to endure the heat there, finally to be rescued by Gene. Later she attempts to hide herself in the trunk, now removed from the attic. She is, by this stage, ‘barking’. And yet... and yet... Ransom submits to the tattoo. The design is Vee’s, ostensibly of a golf hole with the top of a ball peeping out, surrounded by grass. There may be some erotic allusion, the description is coy. While tremendously painful for Ransom, the new scar actually constrains his back in such a way as to miraculously correct his swing, so that his golf game is recovered. This is truly, brilliantly comic. And somehow Sheila does pull herself together enough to accept the offer of work in Jamaica. Perhaps the madness was only temporary, a divine intercession – or a case of the yips - in order to engineer an astonishing resolution.

Other strands to the story never acquire the same momentum. We never really care whether Ransom learns that the effete Jamaican teenager, Israel, is actually his illegitimate son by Victoria, sister of his manager, Esther, for example. We learn Ester has had several children while in the service of Ransom and unmarried, all brought up by others in Jamaica. We learn that the most recent one was probably fathered by Toby Whittaker, Ransom’s publicist. Significantly, Toby dies of a heart attack while babysitting someone else’s children. The theme of broken families, orphans and single parents is pervasive. Gene and Sheila have two adopted children; Vee looks after his sister’s infant daughter, Victoria is accompanied by her illegitimate son, Israel. There is no shortage of nurturing, but it is short-term, in between other things. Again, the theme becomes an impossibly fractured and incomplete life, a life of scraps and borrowings.

Reviews have pretty much exhausted possible influence or precedents, from Chaucer to Dickens, Nabokov to Martin Amis. I can understand the appeal to the grotesque and satirical, the intricate and ironic. I’ve nothing to add there. Too often the author lingers over dialogue that cannot deliver enough story or amusement and this surely counts against the book. But in its favour she is able to convincingly embrace an impressive range of characters, from the working class Vee and Jen, the nosey and mischievous failed student and barmaid, to the older, middle class sophisticate Sheila and the Jamaican environmentalist, Victoria. All surge with a vitality not easily confined to plot, and all are female, of course. But together they create a window onto a world at once vulgar, topical and shallow, yet somehow vivid, uncanny and intriguing. That is no mean feat. And that, in the long run, is worth more than the masterpiece, the carefully weighed prize for a consensus in taste.
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