The Yips, By Nicola Barker

Barker's novel spins outwards, sucking into an elaborate narrative bizarre characters in steadily more unpredictable scenarios
  • @PhilipHensher

Nicola Barker is a fascinating, often frustrating novelist; unlike most writers of fiction, she has a clear ambition to mark out a territory all her own, and longstanding followers of her work will frequently have identified a scene in real life as "Barkeresque".

These tend to happen in Kent and Essex and often take place in spaces that are transitory, slightly soiled, and have that powerful character which is always described as "characterless". On closer examination, some macabre exchange is taking place; animals may very well be harmed in the making of this novel; and underneath a scene of drunken excess or failed flirtation, the shape of some ancient rite may be felt.

A stretch of land is showing itself, beneath car parks and golf clubs, terminals, supermarkets and sites of pleasure; the gigantic pressures of the Estuary, changing even the English language with new stresses and vowels. Considering how many people live within this 21st-century corner of existence, it is not much written about. Martin Amis observes Mondeo man and Basildon woman from far off; hardly anyone writes about Barker's people with the same degree of delight that she does.

Barker is quite a variable writer. Her work includes such triumphs as the unforgettable Wide Open, which won the Impac, a sad, funny story of a community bordering the sea in an unlovely way. Darkmans was her most challenging, but also rewarding book, in which the detailed account of a 21st-century consumer society cracked to reveal capering mediaeval figures. Nothing, and everything, had changed, and in her best work you feel that, despite its oddity and uniqueness, there is something there that Jonson or Chaucer would have recognised immediately, and laughed at.

The Yips is a very challenging novel, and perhaps in the end a disappointment – it lacks a crucial degree of refinement and polish in the execution, and sticks too narrowly to a particular tone of voice. It isn't the first Barker novel that I set down with relief, and picked it up again with a little unwillingness, but it is the first that made me feel that I'd been forced through a difficult and wearing experience without much reward.

It begins in classic territory, with a fading golfer milking the last drops of his fame in a late-night bar, to an audience of two bar staff. One, Jen, says she's never heard of the celebrity; the other, Gene, is more aware of the burden of fame, the way it creates and expects an audience, particularly among the serving classes. From this engaging premise, the novel spins outwards, sucking into an elaborate narrative bizarre and extraordinary characters in steadily more unpredictable scenarios. The fading golfer remains at the centre, the source of the other characters' hopes and fantasies; the yips of the title the moment when self-doubt sets in, and the previously expert golfer finds himself unable to hit the ball with any accuracy.

The problem with the novel is, I think, that it limits itself to so narrow a mode. Almost the whole novel is set as dialogue, and Barker's dialogue here is extravagantly baroque. It exaggerates the style of late-night, drunk, Estuary dialogue in its most excitable state – pages pass in thickets of exclamation marks – and it has the appearance of plausible speech, rather than the reality. "It's personal with me. Always has been. A pride thing. I need to be the big dog – the biggest dog – win or lose. And if I'm gonna lose, then I'll piss all over the fairways. I'll leave divots a foot fuckin' deep."

There's nothing wrong with this pungently flavoured, not-quite-naturalistic dialogue. Barker's appeal isn't limited to how accurately she reproduces real-life speech, but depends, in her best work, on the magical fantasy with words and phrases. The Yips, I think, depends too much on undiluted dialogue, often pitched at the same level of frenzy and noise, whoever happens to be speaking. There is a problem, too, with some carelessness and broadness in the writing, often lazily underlining with a verb what the dialogue has already suggested: "Don't get me wrong, Ransom rapidly backtracks…" There is too much reliance, for once, on a range of stock gestures – characters sometimes wince, or shrug, two or three times in as many pages – which doesn't match up to the energy of the myth-making, or the furious pace of the plot. The writing, on the whole, doesn't serve the power of the concept, and the result is one of Barker's rare disappointments. She is capable of refinement, as well as powerful quiddity; she is a writer who is comfortable with the larger form, and in the past has worked extremely well within the long novel. Let's put The Yips down as the sort of temporary loss of form which even the best novelists can be excused.