Sunday 1 February 2004

Clear: A Transparent Novel - (Man Booker Prize 2004, Longlist)

Nicola Barker

On the surface, Clear is about Blaine and his box. The Above the Below circus at London’s Tower Bridge is backdrop; common curiosity drawing the characters into their strangely fractured discourses in its shadow; and a shared lexicon through which they interrogate each other. The narrator, Adair, is a paper pusher working for the mayor. His interest in the 40-day hunger fest follows from a Tupperware incident on a lunch break by the river, where he encounters the mysterious Aphra. In her seeming affinity with Blaine’s test of endurance she (and increasingly Blaine, too) becomes the object of our narrator’s affections.

It is an entertaining read if a) you do so before the oh so contemporary references lose their nowness; and b) you are able to feel smugly satisfied at your familiarity with the pop cultural markers - juxtaposed with laughably mystical pseudo-intellectualising - that litter it. The characters reveal themselves through the shorthand of what they wear, their CD collections and, in Adair’s case, the love sick compilations destined for his iPod.

But despite, or rather because this literary device renders the characters necessarily thinly drawn, they nevertheless seem real. We recognise them precisely because people do indeed sometimes seem compelled to define themselves in this way - you are what you eat, what not to wear - you get the idea. How else do you get to know ‘the real you’ when all the old ways of being someone eg. class, work, family, politics are so undermined by what has gone before?

The novel, for good or for bad, is very up to the minute - and breathtakingly so. Dizzee Rascal, who is to later gatecrash the Blaineathon as it comes to an end, wins the Mercury Prize. A year on, the tuned-in reader will know that Dizzee’s got a new critically acclaimed album out and the ageing Robert Wyatt collected the prestigious award. Perhaps this confirms the assertion by Adair’s impossibly cool flatmate, Solomon - an Ekow Eshun type - when he contends that ‘they’ wanted to neutralise the danger in Raskie’s underground appeal. Clear sometimes feels like a fictional equivalent of Eshun’s old magazine Arena, and would likely appeal to its rather knowingly hip, sophisticated mid 20s to 30 something readership. (OK, I used to read it.)

Despite this, by latching onto this illusionist-publicist’s narcissistic orgy - which, I think, is nevertheless of genuine significance as a cultural barometer of our times - Barker gets at a fundamental truth about the historical moment we are still living through. Blaine’s bizarre open-air installation generated both hostility and bafflement from the crowds and the tabloids alike, but never the indifference it deserved. He became a talking point, or as one character perceptively puts it - a blank slate onto which we project our own interpretations. And this is what each character proceeds to do, in the process drawing in the reader to similarly speculate on what the stunt was all about, who this Blaine character really is?

The world, after all, was witness 24/7 to a man encased in a perfectly transparent box, his every scratch and sniff beamed into our living rooms. In his classic The Fall of Public Man, Richard Sennett talks about the decline of public life - the rise of spectacle, and the strange bedfellows of isolation and transparency that Blaine in his Clear box - for me - so embodied. The performer is raised to new heights in the modern age (quite literally in this case) from his once lowly status not far removed from that of court jester - and where it might be argued with some justification, the likes of Blaine still belong. Sennett, rather unfairly in my view, accuses the rest of us of being reduced to inexpressive mesmerised spectators in awe of the exoticism of celebrity - however banal. And there is certainly an element of this in Barker’s book.

Engaging subject matter aside, it is a very readable if stylistically odd effort. The use of spacing - sometimes a couple of sentences to a page for emphasis - actually works well; though the point of the excessive italicisation when you least expect it was lost on me.

So enough of that.

Despite the comically painful and drawn out barstool philosophising on the Blaine phenomenon that the characters indulge each other in - the snappy dialogue keeps it agreeably pacey. But Clear is a peculiar novel - if anything, rather oblique. It simply isn’t clear what Barker is trying to do with it. Enjoyable as it is, the book is ultimately limited, especially with regards to any literary pretensions that might be presumed from its status on the Booker longlist.


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