Behindlings is monstrously flamboyant, not so much a novel as a tidal wave of words rushing furiously at the reader. I know this sounds like an insult—critics generally rate fiction in terms of narrative arcs and and character development—but these characteristics seem utterly inappropriate in a description of Nicola Barker. She holds nothing back for prudence or plot, love or money. Barker risks looking utterly ridiculous as her characters do the tarantella through the labyrinths she devises for them.
Barker has published half a dozen books of fiction in her native England, though hardly anyone has heard of her here. Granta just included her in their latest authorial beauty contest “40 Under 40” (she’s 36), and a few years back she beat out Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, and Philip Roth for Ireland’s $75,000 IMPAC Award with Wide Open, an eerie novel about two emotional cripples named Ronnie and the rippling circle of misfits that surrounds them. Behindlings collects its own ensemble of oddballs drawn to the charismatic Wesley. One of Barker’s favorite characters, Wesley previously appeared in four short stories—trapping his brother in an abandoned refrigerator, liberating eels from a “pie and mash” café, feeding his hand to a ravenous owl, and stealing an antique pond.
He’s a fabulist creature, half man, half mischief. But now Barker has attempted a daring feat, inflating this tiny figment of her imagination into a mythical figure grandiose enough to carry a 535-page novel. Wesley has mutated into an eco-anarchist trickster with a dedicated cult of followers—he disdainfully calls them Behindlings—who stalk his every move. Although Wesley built his credibility on wild-man antics and anti-corporate rhetoric, he seems to have finally sold out, orchestrating a giant treasure hunt called the “Loiter,” sponsored by a large confectionary company. Followers interpret Wesley’s pretentious clues and track his whereabouts via the Internet in the hope of winning a grand prize. But things go awry: One of the contestants accidentally drowns, and Wesley cuts off contact with the candy company, leaving them to panic.
As the novel begins, the hardcore Behindlings have followed Wesley to Canvey Island, a moldy seaside town. The faithful, which include a tattooed hippie, an activist nurse, and a blind ex-cop, claim they’re not interested in the prize. Instead, they see it as a pilgrimage—”a way of life, if you will”—pursuing him because it provides the illusion of shape and meaning in their mundane lives. In return, Wesley mocks their need for a leader. But his disdain has an affectionate edge, bolstered by Barker’s fond portraits of the crew—none penetrating enough to evoke depth of personality, but each studded with enough specificity to make them an entertaining bunch. The Behindlings are unified by loneliness but divided by paranoia, constantly searching for spies and ringers.
The juiciest character in the book isn’t a follower at all. Katherine Turpin is Wesley’s foil. The town slut, she lives in a feverishly cluttered bungalow that embodies Barker’s own dense thicket of words. Surrounded by her beloved hydrangeas and a masturbating pet chinchilla, Katherine wards off visitors with her prickly tongue. She has a terrifying knack for insults, yelling at the love-struck carpenter next door: “You mad, you monolithic, you fucking crazy wooden-hearted fool? You dust creature. You maniac. Do you hear? Stay out of my garden!” She’s a force of nature as much as a person, like Wesley sustained by all the myths and rumors that swirl around her. Yet Wesley’s always on the run, always dodging his past, while Katherine is permanently anchored to Canvey Island.
Behindlings feels prophetic yet trivial; it evokes a sense of panoramic breadth while focusing on a small number of people trapped on an island over a three-day period. You could read the tale as a commentary on the nature of celebrity worship, but this seems too earnest for Barker, who revels in absurd comic moments. She likes to tantalize and befuddle readers with wayward hints and the possibility of resolution, just as her hero does. The book’s very structure is a tease, because just as Barker begins to probe one peculiar personality, she moves her viewfinder on to the next, round and round until they’re all tightly bound together, our view of them permanently blurred by the chaotic, accelerating plot.
The whole thing resembles a sumptuous wedding cake on the verge of collapsing under the weight of its ornate frosting. This excess might signal an inability to rein in her impulses, except that Barker changes register according to each scene’s needs. Sometimes words clamber on top of one another in sickening heaps, as in this close-up snapshot of a follower:
He was corpulent (his chin a shuddering cacophony of roughly pleated flesh, a scrum of melted beef lard in a furious blue-white, an unguent waterfall; each dribbling tallow-cascade part-solidifying upon a former, fatter, thicker layer. His chin was like something you might see in a cavern—underground, spot-lit—inside a gorge. Something pale and dimpled that dangled from the ceiling. Something petrified).
Other times Barker resorts to gracefully telegraphic description. Katherine’s perceptions are rendered with particularly sharp language: “He was raddled. Yes. Emaciated. Yes. A rope. A bad thumb. An oar. An old oar. But even she had to admit that he walked, well, beautifully. An oiled machine; his legs snapping in and out with all the smooth, practical precision of a trusty pair of ancient, large-handled kitchen scissors.”
Behindlings is not Barker’s best novel—that would be Wide Open. The novel’s plot is far too convoluted even for her own characters, those dedicated students of conspiracy theory. When one follower tries to articulate his own ideas about why the Loiter matters to him, words crumble in his mouth: “They were all waiting for life to take over; in all its sheer, crushing . . . the sap . . . the brutality . . . —because that’s what he stood for—Wasn’t it?” Don’t expect the pieces to come together neatly and you might just enjoy Behindlings, for the distinct pleasures of disorientation.