Book Review: 2012 Long Listed: Nicola Barker’s The Yips

The_YipsRating: 4.5
The Yips
A Novel by Nicola Barker
2012 / 550 Pages

The Setup: The hilarious Man Booker-longlisted novel from the author of DARKMANS, Nicola Barker.

2006 is a foreign country; they do things differently there. Tiger Woods’ reputation is entirely untarnished and the English Defence League does not exist yet. Storm-clouds of a different kind are gathering above the bar of Luton’s less than exclusive Thistle Hotel. Among those caught up in the unfolding drama are a man who’s had cancer seven times, a woman priest with an unruly fringe, the troubled family of a notorious local fascist, an interfering barmaid with three E’s at A-level but a PhD in bullshit, a free-thinking Muslim sex therapist and his considerably more pious wife. But at the heart of every intrigue and the bottom of every mystery is the repugnantly charismatic Stuart Ransom – a golfer in free-fall.

Nicola Barker’s Man Booker-longlisted novel THE YIPS is at once a historical novel of the pre-Twitter moment, the filthiest state-of-the-nation novel since Martin Amis’ MONEY and the most flamboyant piece of comic fiction ever to be set in Luton.  (From the hardcover edition)

This review was simultaneously published on Opinionless on 08/06/2012

Nicola Barker’s ninth novel The Yips takes its title from the slang word used to describe the medical term focal dystonia which basically boils down to a loss of the control over fine motor skills without any explainable reason. Most notably in sports such as golf (goll-oll-llolf!) it causes shaky hands which can lead to an inability to perform, forcing some players to readjust their game to compensate for the deficiency and others still to throw in the towel and call it a day. Stuart Ransom, he’s recently developed a nasty case of the yips.

Ransom is a crude ex-surfer turned professional golfer who’s no stranger to controversy. Nearly bankrupt and on a downward slide, he finds himself thirty miles north of London in the town of Luton (claim to fame: hat making!) where he’s getting ready to take part in an upcoming tournament. As the novel opens he finds himself in a hotel bar conversing with Gene, a seven time cancer survivor – to be fair it was only ever terminal the one time – and the teenage Jen who possesses the uncanny ability to effortlessly bullshit anyone about anything at any time. As the novel progresses it’s hard to ascertain exactly what Jen’s playing at, but her character is in many ways the glue that binds the novel together and she is far and away the most over the top, amusing member of the bunch.

Of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Valentine, the agoraphobic genital tattoo artist who has a love for all things circa 1940 and provides in-home care for her mother Frédérique, a woman who lost the plot after getting struck by a stray golf (GOLLUFF!) ball that was hit by none other than, you guessed it, Stuart Ransom while the poor woman was causally enjoying an otherwise lovely day out at tournament play. Rounding out Vee’s family is her drug addled brother Noel who’s determined do “something” with their late father’s “collection” and his young exhibitionist-in-the-making daughter Nessa whom the neighborhood boys love to watch jump on the trampoline.

The rest of the novels’ hilariously flawed cast of characters include Ransom’s loyal manager Ester, a woman who pops out baby after fatherless baby and promptly ships them off to Jamaica to be raised by her mother and Gene’s wife Sheila a former riot grrl turned barking for Christ minister who may or may not be on the cusp of reverting back to her former college-age self.

With all of these tragically flawed individuals and a title named after a sporting affliction you’d expect The Yips to be either a comedy gold mine or a novel primarily about golf (Gol-ol-ol-ol …) or some combination of the two. There’s no doubt that many pieces are laugh out loud funny, and make no mistake some of the novel does focus in on various aspects of golfing, though no one is ever actually playing the sport for even a single page, but Barker is also intelligently tackling some surprisingly serious topics here by way of comedic cover.

In one way or another we all feel confined at some point. Perhaps not physically, like being house bound, or stuck in an attic, or thrown in the boot of a car, or wrapped within the restricting fabric of a burqa, but we’ve all had the moment when we’ve awoken to the realization that we’ve reached our limit and something, be it very large or even extremely minute, needs to change. The problem usually lies in figuring out exactly what needs to give and how to make it happen. We get blocked mentally, a yips of the mind if you will.

It’s in these treacherous waters that all of Barker’s characters, not just the former golf (Goll-lluf) star Ransom find themselves wading. Change is hard and it isn’t always good. We know instantly when we’ve missed the mark, but it can take months if not years before we have confirmation that we actually made the right decision. Just thinking about all of the potential pitfalls life throws at us every day is enough to make anyone’s hands shake, but there is no road map, no guide, no magic answers. We do the best we can and struggle onward and (hopefully) upward. We do often tend to make mountains out of molehills though, don’t we? Maybe Jen’s outlook on life sums it all up best:

“No philosophy. No guidance. No structure. No pay-off. No real consequences. Just stuff and then more stuff.”

Perhaps nothing should come as a surprise to me anymore, but I was shocked that I’d never heard of Nicola Barker before this long list nomination and after the trouble I had to go through to actually get a copy of the novel sent to the United States I was as equally dismayed to find that very few of her other books are available here. How does a woman who won The IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, The David Higham Prize for Fiction, and was previously nominated for the Booker in 2007 fly under the radar abroad? Why does The Yips still not have a North American release date?

The answer probably lies in the subject matter she tackles: flawed individuals in every day circumstances where a lot goes on, but nothing much ever really happens.  I’m guessing that summation won’t sell a lot of books.

Still, The Yips is deliriously brilliant and laugh out loud funny, but as much as I want you to read it, I also want to keep it for myself. It’s like having new favorite album months before anyone else has heard it and then hating it after it blows up big time on the radio because no matter which way you turn you can’t escape it, as if it somehow gets less brilliant with each additional person that listens to it. I wanted to keep this one all to myself, but damn you Man Booker judges, you’ve let the secret out: Nicola Barker is force to be reckoned with.

I’ll be flabbergasted if The Yips doesn’t make this year’s shortlist, but then again, I said the same thing about Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies in 2010 so what do I really know?


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