Book Group: Your views on the August book, 'Clear' by Nicola Barker

Bamboozled by a box of tricks
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The Independent Culture

Initial questions desperately posted on the website by baffled readers ranged from Jellyfeeble's "Is this a modern 'stream of consciousness' way of writing?" (followed 11 days later, by the cry for help: "I still don't know what this book is about"), to Mo245's more direct "Is this the literary world's version of a Turner Prize entry?", and finally to the worrying response of Ramblingsid: "Are people in London all as shallow and stupid as these characters?".

For many, reading Clear seems to have taken on the epic proportions of Blaine's stunt, with almost every reader registering their "struggle" with the book. Floyra attempted to push on through but "got to page 121 and gave up", while shirleylizsm records her genuine relief at leaving the 21st century behind and returning to the classics: "I paused from reading Charles Dickens' Bleak House to read Clear - am looking forward to getting back to it tonight."

Among others who struggled valiantly on was LJ2026: "As a country hick from the wilds of North Yorkshire, where we are more interested in sheep than shoes, I may have missed some of the finer points of the book, particularly as I've never been interested in the antics of David Blaine. There was the potential here for a really witty and intelligent story, but I thought it fell wide of the mark."

LJ2026 points out the inherent problem of the novel for the majority of readers - a lack of interest in Blaine's stunt the first time round, let alone in a second, literary approach. According to OliviaDW: "It was such an arbitrary subject for a book... A bit too deep a reading into why Blaine was doing what he did. I kept wondering was the Blaine box story representative (or ironic or symbolic or something) but am not sure of what! Suffering, life, death?" Mo245 concurs: "This was a weird one. I yawned my way through the first quarter, and I hated the narrator, felt no sympathy and was genuinely irritated by the narrator's attempts at description. My feelings are probably not helped by the fact that I was completely uninterested by Blaine's stunt in London. As for why he did it, I really didn't, and still don't, care. It makes as much sense to me as someone applying to go on Big Brother."

For many, it was the cooler-than-thou nature of Clear's protagonist, Adair, that grated. Floyra succinctly dismisses the hero thus: "Our narrator may be going to grow up one day, but I have no hope that I will like him when he does." Ramblingsid also remains baffled by this portrayal of "yoof culture" in the capital: "It only really worked for me if I thought of it as a sort of comedy of manners for the 21st century. The plot was pretty well non-existent, the characters were practically featureless and seemed concerned only with designer labels and pseudo-intellectual discussion of a shallow popular culture. Everything was just for show - rather like Mr Blaine and his profoundly pointless stunts."

Mo245 was similarly unimpressed with the novel's apparent lack of depth: "I found this book to be an example of the current laddish culture, and as such shared the shallowness. It reminded me of a bunch of A-level students using a little knowledge to ridicule everyone else without having a huge amount of depth themselves. I have spent a lot of time sitting listening to opinionated students and this book reads like one of those conversations. Perhaps I just needed a couple of whiskeys to accompany each chapter?"

Stiff drinks were needed all round to cope with Barker's unconventional style of writing. Shirleylizsm was "irritated by the constant use of comments in brackets, the huge gaps on some pages (was this to make the book look thicker, and therefore more of a read?)". OliviaDW also found Barker's use of brackets "very annoying" but she "came to really like it, as many of the very funny parts were done in this way". For her "the style was original, and it took a bit of getting used to" but she grew to like its "lightness, speed and modernity".

Persistence seemed to be the key for our readers, most of whom agreed that "the book got better as it went along", and they found varying strategies for approaching the book. Ramblingsid took inspiration from Ricky Gervais in his approach: "In the end I began to think of the book as a comedy in the vein of The Office, and that did help it seem a little more tolerable." OliviaDW was also able to overlook the novel's more trying aspects to proclaim that she "really, really enjoyed reading it" and "loved the style, pace, intelligence and humour" which left her "impatient to finish it" - this time, unlike shirleylizsm, in a good way, and not merely to return to Dickens.

Slavicsoul appeared to get to the heart of Clear, producing an epic review in the style of the novel: "For me, the novel's appeal was threefold: I loved Solomon's ranting about racial politics (am keen postcolonial reader), loved the intrigue Blaine eventually generated in the novel and last (but not the least) - I loved the brackets, the gaps, the neurotic, the jerky (of a jerk?) narrative style... its immediacy was, I thought, disarming, unpolished, open... vulnerable?... so... unlike the box 'whiteys' build around themselves to hide in. The style (or the narrator) to me was, on one hand, made to appear very clear (no rhyme intended) - so plain, so 'shallow', so 'mundane', so of the moment, not sticking to anything yet, I thought, it tapped into, or even more so... it plunged into quite a deep debate, I think, about what is deep (depth) and what is shallow (superficial). Blaine's clear box couldn't have been a clearer example of the shallow/the superficial - everything was on display, 'skin deep' as it were - but all this transparency showed nothing, revealed nothing... and instead provoked some poignantly searching and questioning streams of Adair's consciousness."

Paying homage to Barker with this opaque style, slavicsoul appears to conclude that the point of Clear is that there is no point. Phew. OliviaDW sticks to her own voice and sums up the work and the general feeling of all of the readers: "Perhaps I am looking for something that wasn't there. It just didn't seem very Clear to me."

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