Nicola Barker

Clear: A Transparent Novel

For my Dad, Derek Royston Barker,

For Ben Thompson’s Dad, the Right Revd Jim,

and for Tina Miller’s Dad, Dick, who stood helplessly

by, as a boy, and watched an illusionist die.

One

I couldn’t even begin to tell you why, exactly, but my head was suddenly buzzing with the opening few lines of Jack Schaefer’s Shane (his ‘Classic Novel of the American West’. Remember?). I was thinking how incredibly precise those first lines were, and yet how crazily effortless they seemed; Schaefer’s style (his—ahem—‘voice’), so enviably understated, his artistic (if I may be so bold as to use this word, and so early in our acquaintance) ‘vision’ so totally (and I mean totally) unflinching.

‘I have huge balls.’

That’s what the text’s shouting:

‘I have huge balls, d’ya hear me? I have huge fucking balls, and I love them, and I have nothing else to prove here.’

The rest- as they say- is all gravy.

Because let’s face it, when you’ve got balls that size, you automatically develop a strange kind of moral authority, a gung-ho-ness (for want of a better word), a special intellectual certainty, which is very, very seductive to all those tight-arsed and covetous Princess-Tiny-Meats out there (the Little-Balls, and the No-Balls-Good God, let’s not forget about them, eh?).

I don’t make the rules, okay? I’m just a dispassionate observer of the Human Animal. If you feel the urge to argue this point (you’re at perfect liberty to do so), then why not write a detailed letter to Ms Germaine Greer? (That’s it, love, you run off and fetch your nice, green biro…Yeah. And I’m sure she’d just love to read it, once she’s finally finished rimming that gorgeous teenager…)

Schaefer (to get back to my point), as a writer, simply jumps, feet-first, straight into the guts of the thing.

If I might just…uh…quote something, to try and illustrate (and this is entirely from memory, so bear with me)…

‘He rode into our Valley in the summer of ’89. I was just a kid back then, barely as tall as our perimeter fence…’

Yes. So that’s a really (Ouch, no…I mean a really) rough approximation of the original (I can’t find my copy. And don’t sue me, Jack, if you’re still alive and misquotation is the one thing that keeps you up at night. Or- worse still- if you’re some crusty bastard working in the copyright department of some big-ass publishers in Swindon who just loves to get his rocks off prosecuting over this kind of harmless, well-meaning shite: it’s meant to be a tribute to the man, so will you maybe just cut me a little slack here?).

It’s a rough approximation (as I believe I already emphasised), but I’m sure you get the gist of the thing…

Let’s cut it right back to the bone then, shall we?

He. Yeah? The first word: He. That’s him. That’s Shane: The Man.

Just a single, short breath into the narrative, and already he’s here. He’s arrived. It’s Shane. He’s standing right in front of us: completely (quite astonishingly) dimensional.

And in the second breath? (If you can just try and suppress your excitement for a minute.) In that second breath he’s…Oh. My. God. He’s coming even closer.

WAH!

He’s almost on top of you now (Smell the warm leather of his chaps — the sweat on his horse — the grease in his gun-holster).

Uh, let’s rewind for a moment: the second word (second word, right?) is ‘rode’. He rode…He rode…(just in case some of you weren’t keeping up).

‘He rode into our valley…’

He rode

And there you have it. In just two, short, superficially insignificant words, A Hero Is Born.

God.

It’s so fucking humbling.

Please (pretty please) don’t let me harp on too long about all of this (because I will harp. Harping’s my trademark) but what absolutely immaculate styling, eh?

(Give the man credit for it why don’t you?

Schaefer?

Stand up and take a bow!

Schaefer…?

Wow. He’s certainly getting on a little now, isn’t he?

And…uh…he’s kind of wobbly on his…

Whoops!

Can he…?

Would you mind…?

Oh.

Is that his secretary, just next to him there?

Could she maybe…? Yeah?

Well that’s…that’s good. Great…Uh

Hup!

Wowsa.

Phew!

Steady. Steady

Aw.

Just look at the old dog—look at him! — lapping it all up.

And the audience?

On their feet. Waving their bic lighters, singeing their thumbnails. Stamping their feet. In a state of complete bloody ecstasy, and all because of just two simple words. That’s two. Count ’em.)

You can’t learn that stuff. No way. It’s born (I’m serious. I should know). And you can call me naive (if you like. I’m man enough to take it), but I’m not seeing Schaefer (in my mind’s eye), his head tilted on one side, his mouth gently gaping, his pencil cocked, taking detailed notes on ‘structure’ or ‘the use of metaphor’ at some cruddy creative writing seminar in some embarrassing further education college in the American Mid-West circa 1947. (Fuck off!)

Because this is no-frills writing at its very best. This is ‘am-it’, ‘lived-it’ stuff. Shane (yeah, remember him? He…? He rode?) is the first person Schaefer mentions in the book; the first syllable, no less. And if I’ve got this right (and I’m fairly sure that I have…Okay, bollocks, I know I have), then he’s also the last. He’s the last syllable.

(Cue music for The Twilight Zone.)

It can’t be an accident! It just can’t.

The novel ends on his name (this time, though, Shane is leaving, not arriving). The whole narrative essentially resounds to the rhythm of his name:

Shhhh-aaay-yne (Yeah. I think that works better phonetically, for some reason).

Please note—the secret poets among you, especially- that perfect hush in the first part of the word—Shhhh! Be quiet! Someone important owns this name! Pay attention! Shhhh!

(Okay, so maybe I’m starting to over-egg this thing a little.)

But the name definitely chimes. It’s almost as though the book (that heavy weight in your left hand — the pages read — and no weight at all in your right, because it’s over: the journey is travelled, it’s done) is just this great, big, old grandfather clock, striking for all it’s worth. This huge, sonorous bell:

‘And he was Shane.’

(That’s the last line.)

Boinggg!

I mean Ka-fucking-Pow or what?!

I’m actually laughing out loud. I swear to God (sad bastard? Me? Won’t bother denying it). Because I am putty — literally putty- in Schaefer’s hands. And I love his hands (Calm down. There’s nothing even remotely unmanly about it). I just love this feeling. I do. To be manipulated, to be led, to be played, and so artfully. It’s just…I’m just…I’m very, very happy to be a part of that process. Because you can’t beat that sensation (so you might as well join it, eh?).

Bottom line: Schaefer’s just owning that shit. (Man, you’ve got to own your shit. Fact.)

So maybe I think about Shane a little too much, sometimes. And maybe I’m prone to overanalysing everything, but then ‘life is in the details’, as they say (‘they’ in this particular instance being the Special Features Writer in a copy of Elle Decoration, which I paged idly through at the Sexually Transmitted Diseases Clinic in Bow last Tuesday, who was holding forth — and so passionately- about leather-look wallpaper. It’s the coming thing).

It was his first book, actually. Shane. It was Schaefer’s first. I read his other big one — can’t remember the title (fuck it. That’s so…uh…).

Company of Cowards!

Ting- ting!

Yeah. It just wasn’t so good.

But then lightning rarely strikes, etc.

Hmmn.

Are you…? Am I…?

Let’s press rwnd for a moment, shall we?

Slow it right down…

Then just…uh

HOLD!

Good.

Freeze it for a second…

Yes

Uh

Oh. No.

Okay…

Just a couple of frames more…

Just a couple…

STOP!!!

That’s it!

That’s me. I’m just…

I’m very small right now. Okay? Bottom left-hand side of the picture…

If you could maybe…?

Bingo!

So we’re jumping around a little — the focus is all shot — the sound’s terrible. But I think if you look closely you can just about see me, hanging around, unobtrusively, almost lost in the background…

I’m sitting, slightly hunched over (my habitual posture — I have a clinical condition known as ‘Masturbator’s Back’), my free hand jammed deep inside my trouser pocket and my headset blasting (ODB, eff-ing and blinding for all he’s worth — which is quite a lot), and I’m thinking about Shane while I munch on my sandwich (it’s lunchtime). I happen to be straddling this gonad-freezing marble wall by the mother of all rivers (No. Not the Nile. You want Agatha Christie? Then look under C).

The River Thames:

Tah-dah!

In all her sweet autumnal glory. Tower Bridge is quite literally towering behind me — her huge, turquoise ramparts (okay, so I’m no whizz on architecture) flying out from between my two puny shoulder blades like a couple of crazy bat-wings (this image so very nearly works that I’m tempted to leave it in. Yes, it is a tad far-fetched — especially when you consider the angles and everything — but I think Jack would’ve approved. I think Jack would say, ‘You’re doin’ real good work here, kid; but just remember the story. Keep your mind focused on the narrative, because that’s what truly counts in this business. That’s what really matters here.’

Is this guy some kind of saint, or what?).

We’re in only the second week of Master Illusionist David Blaine’s spectacular Public Starvation Pageant, Above the Below (so how the fuck does he go about translating that into plain English, without sounding a complete twat?).

It’s day 8 or day 9–I forget which (can’t quite read it on that handy 44-day digital clock of his from where I’m currently sitting) — but it already feels like it’s been going on for ever (we’ve had the golf balls, the eggs, the girls baring their breasts, we’ve had the paint gun, the fences raised, the security doubled and Shiraz Azam with his all-nite bhangra drum…).

Don’t think (for a moment) that it’s just some lucky accident that I’m perched here (right in the hub, you might say), because I work (as a clerical assistant, much against my will, my instinct, my inclinations) in the only building directly adjacent to this psychotic happening (you might’ve seen us — in all the design magazines — early last year): a huge, grey-green-glass Alessi milk-jug of a structure (a tipsy fat penguin): the Greater London Authority Building (we were the centre of the world till they went and built that stupid gherkin near Aldgate. Now we’re just last night’s chip paper. Modernity’s like a badly trained dog: try and make it heel, even for a moment, and it turns and bites the hand that fed it. Snap).

I’m sitting a little way along from all of the kerfuffle. The press are still very much in attendance, having their field day, ‘making’ all their pictures, ‘writing’ all their commentaries (uh, is it just me, or don’t they actually realise that this slightly chubby, very famous 30-year-old illusionist isn’t really going anywhere? Don’t panic, lads, you have about 36 more days to sort out your copy. Sit back, relax. Just do as the magician does).

It’s a tragic fact, but Blaine is definitely bringing out the worst in we Brits. I don’t know if this is what he wants (if it’s all part of the buzz for this American Christo-like) or if it’s what he expected, but he’s headlining it in most of the tabloids today. They’re calling him a fake, a cheat, a freak, a liar. They’re up in bloody arms, basically. And it’s a moral issue, apparently. Because it’s in Very Bad Taste to starve yourself if you have the option not to- yeah, so why not go and tell all those fucked-up, deviant Anorexics that? — especially (especially) if you’re calling it Art (and pocketing a- purely coincidental- 5 mill. pay-out).

Cynical? Moi?

Look, I’m just sitting on this damn wall and watching all the colour unfold around me. I don’t quite know if I’m loving it or loathing it (you’ll find me on the fence. I’m the kind of guy who used to actively enjoy leaning on his bike’s crossbar as a kid). But who (who?) can deny that it’s a big story? It’s a big setting—I mean Mary Mother of Jesus, how the hell did the council give permission for all this crap? Right here, on their doorstep? In the middle of everything?

It’s just a wild guess, but I’m definitely getting the impression that some poor bastard has currently got his nuts in a vice over this whole farrago.

Uh…’ he’s stuttering, ‘I thought it might attract the tourists, Mr Mayor. I thought it might be a nice…an impressive culmination to some of the other cultural events we’ve been staging in the park throughout the summer. I mean the kids loved the visit from the local city-farm, didn’t they? All the goats and hens and everything? And then there was that cookery demonstration in the striped marquee. That went swimmingly…’

The cleaners (let’s get down to brass tacks) are absolutely fucking livid (I’m not certain if they have the mayoral ear, but if they do, then that fall guy’s nuts are definitely for the high jump).

I’m actually on nodding terms with Georgi (Gee-orgi. Twenty-two. Toothless. Romanian. Angriest man in the world right now).

Georgi already deals with a lot of shit (he sells me dope, the occasional E), because the life of a cleaner on this part of the river is not an easy one. The whole area’s paved — and enclosed — for one thing. And it’s a huge tourist draw, a landmark (the whole world feels like it already owns this view, and in some ways — if affection begets possession — it does).

It needs to look good — at all times — and because of the tons of dodgy marble and smooth cement and dramatic architecture, any stray detritus just — kind of—sits there. It stands out. It looks bad. It needs to be dealt with, and quickly (So fuckin’ jump to it, lad), else all we proud Londoners (okay I’ve lived here 10 years, so I think I qualify) start to look shoddy.

And we don’t like that.

But with the advent of Blaine’s box, things have started to go crazy. Is it Blaine himself? The excitement? The fury? The awe? Whatever the root cause, people suddenly seem to feel the powerful need to generate mess. It’s Goo-ville. It’s Crap-town. There’s old fruit, rotten eggs (British poultry farmers are just loving this situation. Fuck Sky, man. We really need to start seeing the colour of their sponsorship money), and worst of all, there’s the ‘human’ element.

Now don’t get me (or Georgi) wrong: people have always pissed in corners (a bridge — any bridge — almost demands as much from any man with a working penis), but the way things are currently, it’s like the embankment is a toilet and Blaine is just the scented rim-block dangling in his disposable plastic container from the bowl at the top. It’s getting completely degenerate. People are shitting everywhere. Man, it’s Shit-o-fucking-rama down here. Huge steaming piles of the stuff, in every alcove, every crevice, every corner. And then there’s poor Georgi — with his broom, his weak hose, his little shovel — being expected to clean all this crap—your crap — up.