Here we see Barker’s talent for the striking phrase, the original description; her great strength as a writer is the verve of her performance, the pirouetting sentences, intellectual restlessness and quick associations between high and low culture. Yet she is prone to overestimating how charming the performance is; reading her at her most excessive is like talking to a hyperactive stand-up comic who has forgotten she is not on stage any more.
Barker is very good at layering the past and present, memory and experience, stream-of-consciousness and surface interaction. It is a convincing encapsulation of how the mind works. And all the while she toys with the reader, the consummate puppet master.
The UK is immersed in a golden age of experimental women’s literature. To have writers such as Nicola Barker, Ali Smith and Kirsty Gunn – to name just three – at the top of their game is something for which we should all be grateful.
Nicola Barker loves to break the conventions of fiction, and towards the end of this novel, she pops out from behind the story to tell us exactly what she is doing. “The overriding concept for I am Sovereign is that it should take place, in its entirety, during a twenty-minute house viewing in Llandudno.” It is rather like the kind of exam paper where they tell you to show your workings out. There are characters who nearly appear, until the author changes her mind in the middle of introducing them, and suddenly drops them. She has set herself the novelist’s ultimate challenge — to turn the dullest situation imaginable into something fascinating and lifelike — and she (mostly) pulls it off.
Though Barker has adopted the kind of time-frame associated with her near namesake Nicolson Baker, whose early novels portrayed an office worker’s lunch break (The Mezzanine) and a new father feeding a baby (Room Temperature), she has allowed herself a greater variety of points of view and set her sights a little higher, or anyway further left-field. Where Baker was taking a form of realist monologue to its logical – if manic – conclusion, Barker serves up a mixture of experiment and statement, part postmodern comedy, part spiritual credo... Barker is intrigued by the ways that an environment can become a trap, the environments in question being a house, a family, a community, a mind and, with increasing explicitness, a book. The tools of metafiction aren’t used to give the reader a wink and a nudge, a reminder of what activity they’re engaged in, but to interrogate the basis of fiction – the activity that Barker is engaged in... I Am Sovereign isn’t a wholly satisfying piece of work, which might seem fitting for a book that pits the virtues of the “good enough” against bogus and dangerous “perfection”, though the reason appears to go deeper.
I Am Sovereign is a brilliantly constructed, often hilarious, and wildly clever little novel. But it seems almost wholly created for the judges and juries of literary prizes. Critics will probably enjoy Barker’s postmodernist dalliance too, calling it experimental and plotless. But who will read it? If the Goodreads ratings of her other novels are any indication, maybe around 500 people. But what a great time those 500 will have.
In her 13th novel I Am Sovereign, huge fonts careen, in the space of an exclamation, into tiny fonts. Bold and underlined text prickles on the page. Barker has many ways of presenting what one of her characters, an estate agent from Llandudno called Avigail, describes as ‘BASTARD WORDS’. And these bastard words are all that the novel’s three protagonists have when trying to distract themselves from their doubts, or break free from what is holding them back...Barker’s experimentalism has always tended to polarise readers; and with its postmodern set-up and eccentric typography this novel will do so too. As someone who both loves Barker’s mind and is often baffled by her choices, I found I Am Sovereign frequently irritating but rarely unpleasurable.
“Goodness, you get the sense she’s having fun,” wrote Sam Leith, praising The Yips in the Guardian. But the reader needs to have fun, too. Likewise, Barker writes of her characters at the end of I Am Sovereign: “The Author loves them all so much, so very dearly, that she cannot bear to say goodbye to them, somehow.” Clearly they were real for Barker, but for many readers they will feel as arbitrary as characters in a game of consequences. It’s hard not to wonder whether this is part of the appeal. “The Author suspects that this novella… is either extremely deep or unbelievably trite.” There will be plenty of Barkerites on hand to illuminate its hidden depths.
There are few writers as resolutely committed to the avant garde novel as Nicola Barker. Her books are never only about their purported subject, but always ask the reader to consider the artificiality of art, the gulf between the real and its representation in literature... I kept thinking of Wallace’s The Pale King (and its regal titular echo) as I was reading I Am Sovereign. Barker’s final lament could have been written by DFW himself... And yet, unlike Wallace, Barker doesn’t despair. At the end, there’s still humour, still hope. “The Author just needs to hope. And she needs to love. And she needs to believe, in spite of.” Barker is a writer in a class of her own, and I Am Sovereign, forged in the fire of her “mixed feelings” about the form, is a work of coruscating intelligence, of deep humanity
Barker’s writing is very, very funny, both ha ha and strange. She acerbically captures the constructed vacuity of Instagram influencers and online gurus, for instance; fans of Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet will enjoy a similarly arch, detached view on the banality of contemporary Britain. There’s even excruciating slapstick in there: a virtuoso scene of upset tea trays, falling brooms and backflipping cats. But it’s the mystical moments that feel the boldest. Letting an estate agent “be consumed by Ein Sof… Immanence. All God”, and also be cross about it because she has a house to sell, is a gloriously audacious blend of, well, the deep and the trite.
Barker gossips about her cast like a director might about her actors. In one way, little happens – a chunk of mouldy cheese is taken from the fridge, binned, retrieved, carefully trimmed, and returned to the fridge. In another way, everything changes... Barker makes the analogy between fictional inclusion and actual immigration very clear. Sovereignty of any sort requires a gesture of exclusion. You can’t come in. You don’t belong here. In this brave, funny and painfully timely novella, Barker questions her own – and thus our own – authority. By what right can we keep people out? There’s also the question of going dominantly in – of the subjection of the Subjects. Should a novelist be free to colonise other people’s heads? In one paragraph, Barker admits to “mixed feelings” about the novel form ever since completing H(a)ppy, “which – to all intents and purposes – destroyed the novel (as a form) for The Author”. Without Authority, if not Sovereignty, how can there be an Author? Barker isn’t sure of the answer. But it’s pretty clear that if she really were queen, she’d abdicate.
What an audacious writer Nicola Barker is. Equally, how bold of her publishers to put this oddity of a novella out into the world... This is punchy stuff, given that anyone holding Barker’s book will be aware that it costs £12.99 for 209 pages of generously spaced text and might be viewed as expensive by many people. But then it’s hard to know if Barker’s books are intended for people who don’t know what they’re getting themselves into. Either way, I hope they read them. Barker even jokes that if she doesn’t end the book quickly enough, it will no longer be a novella but a novel, a form ruined for her when she wrote her last one, H(A)PPY, in 2017... Barker’s pleasure in the novella feels defiant, not least when she reports, during the writing of the book, that “the Author then exfoliated her private parts, vigorously, in the shower.”