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Goldsmiths' Official Student Magazine

H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker: Review

6 November 2017
Shortlisted for this year’s Goldsmiths prize, Nicola Barker’s striking contender H(A)PPY is a daring exploration of censorship, semiotics and typographic trickery.

Perhaps characterised as the novel that no-one quite knows how to pronounce correctly (“happy with parenthesis?”) Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY  is a flourish of narrative self-surveillance moulded in a universe where one’s thoughts are moderated by Sensors for the collective pursuit of perfection. Barker’s world of Graphs, Oracular Devices and Information Streams feels simultaneously other-worldly and familiar in this age of infinite data, and draws on the rich traditions of Sci-Fi and Dystopian fictions.

H(A)PPY charts Mira A’s systematic demystification with the omnipotent System and the work’s title alludes to this fragmentation of truths and emotional modulations. Mira’s thoughts imperfectly oscillate between conformity and creativity, ultimately descending into unregulated language; “DECLARING WAR ON THE SYSTEM”. Barker’s novelistic experimentation with form operates on two levels; first challenging traditional methods of reading by baiting the eye with a smattering of colour to skim before reading the page. Secondly, the reader can’t help but speculate the reasoning behind the coloured grouping of these words, and as the frequency of colouring increases with the rising number of flagged words, our Mira A. becomes increasingly fraught, restricting her thought-patterns. The act is reminiscent of word-processing and technological monitoring of human expression, contributing to a fitting sense of dystopian suffocation.

The novel is thoughtfully prefaced by the Author’s suggestion that “Although by no means essential, this novel is best enjoyed in conjunction with Agustin Barrios: The Complete Historical Guitar Recordings 1913-1942.” and as such, music is a key thematic preoccupation which allows Barker to navigate the extent to which creativity is moderated under repressive regimes.

Barker’s critique of language domination is seen through the attention to the political history of Paraguay and the subversive use of Guarani. The symbolic use of Guarani (or rather, English marked in Green to indicate its use) is employed as a means of covertly communicating- reminding us of the potency of words. “I told her to be careful,’ The Stranger said, ‘not to be seduced by language. It can often be beguiling – seductive – beautiful, yet it is also unpredictable, dangerous, even lethal.”

Conceptual notions such as ‘the Past’ and ‘the Young’ are capitalised, marking these ideas as fixed, intangible models. Words are also marked with coloured fonts- reds, purples and blues, in a seemingly indecipherable code. Language takes centre stage and the attempt to polish and hone a perfect language is in tandem with the brutal attempt to homogenise the human condition- the ruling class of ‘the Young’ aspiring for neutrality and “smoothed” genitals, as well as removing their capacity to feel pain. The novel is a feat of typographic design, testing the eye and modes of reading as Barker delights in a breakdown of the language and methods of story-telling narratives, championing the incomplete, imperfect and illogical.


Words by Senior Literary and Creative Editor, Ellie Potts.