Pond Theft

Peter Robins

  • Behindlings by Nicola Barker
    Flamingo, 535 pp, £10.99, February 2002, ISBN 0 00 713525 4

Nicola Barker usually stages her plots in suburbs or on islands. Behindlings is set on Canvey, a suburban island. The protagonist, Wesley, is either the leader or the target of what may or may not be a cult, depending on how you read things. He sleeps rough, eats gulls, makes his own shaving foam, and is pursued by between two and a dozen stalkers, whom he calls the Behindlings. They are people whose lives Wesley has rearranged, whose partners he has slept with, whose children have died stalking him, or whose childhoods were destroyed by a rumour he has carelessly circulated. It’s not clear if they want to catch him or not, or if he truly wishes to escape them. What matters is the entanglement, and the pursuit.

And Wesley’s life is certainly entangled. When he was seven he accidentally killed his elder brother. He hasn’t been paying child-support for his daughter. A few years back, he fed the fingers of his right hand to an eagle owl. He’s a damaged rebel with charisma, in other words, a type common in Barker’s work. Their usual role is to disrupt a small, not quite stable community. In Wide Open, a man who was abused as a child arrives on an island that harbours a rehabilitated sex offender; in Reversed Forecast, a strong-willed drifter hijacks the life of a betting-shop assistant, with complicated consequences for the network of eccentrics surrounding her. There are similar plot strands in Small Holdings (in which a one-legged former museum curator wrecks a park in Palmers Green, apparently for the sake of love) and Five Miles from Outer Hope (in which a young South African Army deserter comes to an island off the Devon coast). Wesley is a serial disturber of small communities. He made four appearances in Barker’s 1996 story collection, Heading Inland, and he continues his vocation in Behindlings. But he now comes with his own small, not quite stable community of stalkers or celebrants. He has websites, sponsors, national press interest, a police file and a publishing deal.

Behindlings is a good two hundred pages longer than anything else Barker has written, but Wesley is still too big for it. In order to prevent his fans from overwhelming her narrative, Barker has to sabotage their tracking devices. The websites have come down with a virus, and the hard core have stopped answering text messages, reducing the Following (Wesley attracts capital letters) to a manageable size. And Barker takes the precaution of putting the peak of Wesley’s fame some time in the past, when he was important enough for encounters with ‘that twat from the Express’ and ‘the slut from the Mirror’.

There are more conventional restrictions, too. The action of Wesley’s story is confined to a single 24-hour period – dawn to dawn – and a single place, Canvey. He also, at first, appears to be constrained by the plot. He has been organising a treasure hunt called the Loiter, sponsored by an unnamed confectionery company. A Follower has died, and the company has become nervous. ‘These are people,’ their spokesman tells us, ‘who don’t at all value adverse publicity.’ They seem to be about to bring things to an unembarrassing conclusion. Meanwhile, Wesley wants to rent a room from a woman called Katherine Turpin. The last time he was in Canvey, two years before, he wrote a book about the place, in which he quoted a local graffito: ‘Katherine Turpin (whore) aborted her own father’s bastard.’ Some kind of comeuppance seems inevitable.

Nothing so simple happens. The plots don’t so much develop as become more complicated. Wesley’s presence forges new connections between the characters around him and exposes old ones, but he remains unaffected. Most of the suspense comes from the gradual revelation of the Behindlings’ histories and relationships. They also provide a welcome low-comic contrast to his grand, mysterious pranks. The father figure is a man called Doc (short for Murdoch – no apparent allegorical intent), a retired scaffolder with a tragic past and a dog. Doc is pompous, ageing and exhausted. He has a ruder, less punctiliously drawn rival called Hooch. Others include Shoes, a barefoot hippie; Patty, a boy with a care order; and Josephine Bean, a suspended nurse who left Canvey when she finished school and has just begun to follow Wesley. She is a link between the Behindlings and the people of Canvey, and also a reader surrogate, someone for the other Behindlings to explain things to.

There is plenty to explain. The Loiter may be the ostensible reason for the Behindlings’ presence – along with their private motives – but they make clear, when asked, that treasure-hunting is just for weekend stalkers: their aims are grander. They hoard clues to Wesley’s clues, but they also hoard gossip, and are most passionate when discussing Wesleyan symbolism and psychology. In tone, they are somewhere between a chorus and a reading group:

‘He’s high-minded and he’s unpredictable, and most important of all: he’s a troublemaker, and troublemakers value their privacy. So he resents our eyes. We irritate him. In point of fact,’ Doc grinned widely, ‘he loathes the watching.’

‘Poor Wesley’s hiding from the truth,’ Shoes interrupted.

The others all looked askance at this.

‘What truth?’ Jo indulged him.

‘The truth that he needs following. Because – let’s face it – he is the very thing he’s so set upon despising. At root he’s the contradiction. He’s the puzzle. That’s what nobody understands. But we do . . .’ Shoes looked around him, detecting scant support in the others’ faces. ‘Well I do,’ he qualified.

They discuss the impossibility of fully understanding another person, and the consequences of thinking you can; the difficulties of unusual people; the dislocation of the modern world; the relationship between hunter and hunted. Wesley, filled with all these meanings, becomes overinflated. Barker has never been a realist (which is one of the pleasures of her novels). But while her characters have always behaved in strange and wilful ways, they have done so in ordinary settings, and – until now – without being aware of their own eccentricity. Wesley’s fame upsets this balance. In order to believe in his status, you must believe that a couple of Barkerish acts – releasing some eels from a pie-and-mash shop, doing the apparently impossible by stealing an antique pond – would be enough to win him fame and fans: the rebels in her previous novels never made the Express. Too much depends on Wesley’s charisma.

Granted, he has a formidable range of fascinating habits. He has a Holmesian aptitude for deduction – one glance at an estate agent’s hands is enough for Wesley to tell that he sews in secret – and is a dab hand at seduction, winning the heart of Canvey’s librarian with a single well-chosen quotation. He has a dashing ruthlessness in argument, and an unsentimental way with nature (his party trick is the mercy killing of sick wild animals, sometimes followed by their mercy cooking). His past is a powerful mix of the nasty and the vulnerable. But none of this offers more than post hoc justification for the instant, permanent effect he has on everyone he meets. We are told, by Wesley himself, that we shouldn’t expect full explanations (‘that would be a kind of hell’), and that’s fair enough. What we do need, however, is at least one plausible chain of events which could result in Wesley coming to be Followed, and we don’t get it. Barker draws force of will very well, but the effect is most powerful when you don’t expect it – when it comes as a new element in an apparently weak character. From a character as strong and strange as Wesley, nothing is unexpected.

Barker used to write plain, almost gawky prose of startling flexibility. She wasn’t a daring stylist, but she could shift from the mundane to the extraordinary without any evident strain. She abandoned this in her last novel, Five Miles from Outer Hope (2000), which was narrated by a girl called Medve, and written in a precise take-off of precocious teenage prose. There were overstretched analogies (with sarcastic apologies), jocular clichés, dense bursts of rhyme and assonance, and recondite, inappropriate word choices. It was an impressive display. Behindlings, unfortunately, is written in a similar voice. One character has ‘olfactory organs’ where his nose should be; another is compared to a ‘feral canine’. Everybody thinks in synonyms, and as a result the one character with a good excuse for such behaviour (former alcoholic, difficulty remembering words) fails to stand out. There are italicised gobbets from the characters’ streams of consciousness, set out as if they were verse. They aren’t:

At first I just . . .
At first I just . . .
To be rejected so gently,
So absolutely . . .
Took a little comfort – hell, not ashamed to admit it – in the embrace of the bottle
The lovely bottle
And Gillian with herpes
From the P R
The P R
The P R . . .
Depart

It isn’t all like this; there are many shards of good writing. The page after he has his nose tweaked, the man with the olfactory organs is nicely compared to a dog chew, grizzled and tough. The dialogue sharpens where necessary, and the big set pieces, of which there are many, are usually too full of incident to leave much room for synonyms. But it takes considerable patience to reach any of this, and you begin to suspect the wire-wool density of the plot might have been designed to discourage skipping. (I don’t know if you’re meant to know who sabotaged Wesley’s father’s boat, but I don’t.)

A wire-wool plot has its advantages, however. For one thing, it means that there’s plenty to compensate for the Wesley problem – his daughter turning up with a reindeer, for example. Both of them are charming, and neither has italicised thoughts. Whenever things slacken, another Follower comes along: the Behindlings’ shared past means that each new rival brings new reasons for bitchiness or paranoia.

The native suburbanites are even more tightly clustered. While the Behindlings fight about money and trivia, the people of Canvey are busy with lust and grudges: everybody went to school with everybody else, most of them seem to have slept with one another, and they all cling to each other’s mistakes. The centre of this web is Katherine Turpin. Once a promiscuous schoolgirl, she’s now an embittered bean farmer, who lives in a bungalow with a spotless exterior, a wrecked interior and a spotless bedroom. Her father (whose bastard she may or may not have aborted) was the headmaster of the school everyone went to. She drinks a lot of peach schnapps. Her tangles with Wesley result in some very energetic domestic farce – the best moment is a dinner party where the main course is stewed heron (Wesley’s contribution) and every one of the guests is, has been or will soon be her lover.

Behindlings is full of the stuff of conventional rip-roaring narrative: sex, death, children, animals, love, money, fights, chases, secrets, lies and lies about lies. But it’s also ideologically opposed to offering conventional pay-offs, or, in some cases, any resolution at all. Readers might find the experience less stressful were they given at the start a list of matters they are never going to understand. Wesley’s father’s boat is the least of them. Try his business affairs, or the question of who sent the letter from Southend. By the conclusion, an innocuous remark (‘I should’ve left that damn canister’) is enough to have you building whole new conspiracies: it’s what the characters do, after all. Not resolving things doesn’t mean not discussing them, or not presenting them as mysteries to be cracked: competitive exposition is the whole point of being a Behindling, and it becomes an absorbing hobby for most of the Canvey group, too.

It’s possible the off-key endings would be more satisfactory if the book didn’t appear to be agitating for something more. Certainly, I enjoyed those plots that did reach unfussily fit conclusions. The estate agent gets what he deserves; so, probably, does Katherine Turpin. But the scale and complexity is not matched by any commitment to formal neatness. I’m not suggesting that the problem with Behindlings is its very scale and ambition, that Nicola Barker should write only short books. So far as theme goes, she has never lacked ambition: read Wide Open. The problem with Behindlings is that the scale is pumped up in order to make you acknowledge the ambition. It is, nonetheless, full of live characters and clever touches; there’s enough here for three or four tidier novels. Only you’re left wishing that Barker had written three or four tidier novels, in line with her earlier work. Or that she would write one tidier novel, less pleased with itself, on the Behindlings scale.