Magazine article The Spectator

'H(A)PPY', by Nicola Barker - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'H(A)PPY', by Nicola Barker - Review

Article excerpt

It is an unexpected pleasure when fiction has a soundtrack to accompany the work of reviewing. H(A)PPY is 'best enjoyed in conjunction with Agustin Barrios: The Complete Historical Guitar Recordings', Nicola Barker advises before her text gets underway.

It's tempting to dismiss this as a gimmick. But Barrios's music strikes a deep chord with the rebellion at the heart of Barker's 12th novel. Born in the 1880s, the Paraguayan's playing was ridiculed because he preferred his guitar strings to be made of steel rather than fashionable gut. His dissonant art, like Barker's today, could not be accused of courting admiration.

The 'sad-happiness' of Barrios's music is what comes to destabilise H(A)PPY's 'post-post apocalyptic world'. This dystopian tale of sorts begins simply: the 'filth and degradation' of life as we know it has been relegated to a sad corner of the earth, while the Innocents lead an almost flawless existence in accordance with the System. Bodily problems have been resolved: there is no pain, no ageing, no death. Everyone strives (not too hard) to exercise self-control and remain in the Moment. It is, I guess, like being conscripted to a never-endingmindfulness retreat, with the added injustice of other participants enjoying open access to your thoughts. The potentially therapeutic, when taken to the extreme, becomes a tyranny.

Barker does not tell us much about what this new world looks like, but we learn what it feels like. Mira A, a musician and maker of guitars, is struggling to stay 'in Balance'. Her thoughts -- like everyone else's -- are broadcast on the Graph, also known as the Sensor. This psychological FitBit, instead of calories, tracks emotional equanimity. The words of Barker's text change colour as Mira A's feelings inappropriately intensify, like the 'pinkening and purpling' Sensor which warns when an EOE (Excess of Emotion) is imminent. …

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