The Secret Lives of Men
8 Pat Barker arrived on the literary scene in the early 1980s as the apotheosis of a certain type of feminist writertough, working-class, unsentimental. It helped that she had the right credentialsearly patronage (if thats the word) from Angela Carter, a contract with the feminist press Viragobut her debut was most remarkable for its self-assurance. Union Street (1982), her first novel, reads like the work of someone already at the peak of her powers. In gritty counterpoint to Shakespeares seven ages of man, it devotes a chapter each to seven northern-English women from the same hardscrabble streetan 11-year-old girl, a sexually active young woman, a harried young mother, a grieving widow, the flinty neighborhood matriarch, an aging whore, an old woman facing death. Compassionately but unsparingly portrayed, these women are not especially noble and are capable of a scathing backstreet wit. Barkers second novel, Blow Your House Down (1984), is even more unflinching, following the lives of several prostitutes as they endure the dangers and humiliations of their trade. Barker foregrounds the physical discomfort of whoringshivering in short skirts under a railway arch, servicing a client up against the wall in a stinking alley. Its hard to imagine another book about sex so resolutely discouraging and unerotic.
So given the circumstances of her debutsprung full-grown from the head of Angela Carterits surprising to realize that the books Barker is best known for now, her trilogy of novels about World War I, are populated mainly by men, and that most of her novels, from her third (Lizas England, 1986) to her tenth (Double Vision, 2003) feature more male protagonists than female. Perhaps this male reader shouldnt be so surprised, but considering how she started, its a bit of a shock to realize that over the last 20 years, Pat Barker has been engaged in the most ambitious investigation of the inner lives of men in recent British fiction.
The first appearance by a man in Barkers work is unprepossessing, to say the least. As Union Street begins, a sharp-tongued 11-year-old girl named Kelly Brown wakes one morning to find a new man in the house:
On the landing she paused to look into her mothers bedroom. There was a dark, bearded man zipping up his trousers. When he saw her his face twitched as if he wanted to smile. It wasnt Wilf. It was a man she had never seen before.
This is pure, distilled Barkerbrief, blunt, grammatically simple but emotionally complex, a wonderfully compressed evocation of the new man in mothers bedroom as sheepish and decent and weak. Indeed, nervously eager Arthur may be the most decent fellow on Union Street. Later in the same chapter, Kelly meets the worst man in the book, a child molester who lures her into an alley and rapes her. This scene, too, is essential Barker in its graphic, untitillating depiction of an intimate and degrading act of sexual violence:
She stiffened against the pain, but even then did not cry out, but lay still while he heaved and sweated. Then, with a final agonized convulsion, it was all over and he was looking at her as if he hated her more than anything else on earth. He stood up and turned aside modestly until he got his trousers fastened. After a while, since there was no point in lying there, she stood up too. There was a pain between her legs, a mess of blood and slime on her thighs, but she hardly noticed that. She was watching to see what he would do.
And he was tempted to kill her. She watched the thought form in his eyes like a cloud and then slowly dissolve.
They stood and stared at each other. He seemed to sag and shrivel as she watched, like a balloon that before Christmas is big and shiny and full of air and afterwards, when you take it down, is just a sticky, wrinkled bag. His eyes flickered. In another minute he would be gone.
Dont leave me here, she said.
Here Barker shows us a contemptible man at his most contemptible, but somehow, miraculously, theres little contempt in her tone. She doesnt just refuse to deny the rapists humanity, she insists upon it: every gesture and physical response of this man could easily, in another context, be the ordinary behavior of someone in the throes of consensual sex. Its not a passage (or a book, for that matter) to comfort a male reader, but its impossible to deny its visceral truthfulness. This is without question a feminist novel, but not a crudely didactic one. The men run the gamut from the ineffectual to the vicious, and so do the womenBarker takes sides, but she doesnt stack the deck.
The men in Blow Your House Down come off little better. As if the ordinary hardships of prostitution arent bad enough, the women work in fear of a serial killer, the implied Big Bad Wolf of the title, a man who is never identified. Theres nothing thrilling about the fear in Blow Your House Down as the women get into cars with strangers; it is palpable and gut-wrenching, worlds away from the titillations of a slasher movie. Here, as in Union Street, Barker is after something more complex and ambiguous. The books epigraph is from NietzscheWhen you look long into an abyss the abyss also looks into youand the only violent death Barker dramatizes is not of a woman but of a harmless john who literally gets it in the neck from a terrified prostitute named Jean, whose lover Carol was one of the killers victims. Alone in the mans car with him, Jean is suddenly certain hes the one:
I thought about Carol, I saw her lying on the slab, I thought how hed fucked her and stabbed her and left her on a rubbish tip, and just as he got his tie off I brought the knife up and stabbed him in the neck.
He didnt twist or turn or anything like that. He just stared at me. Then his mouth opened, it opened very wide, and he was gasping and gurgling and trying to speak and I held onto the knife and I watched his lips and I held onto the knife and finally it came, one single word, with a rush of blood like a baby splitting open a cunt, one single word: Why?
Deceptively simple, horrifically complex, evoking Jeans panic in the breathless, first-person rush of wordsI held onto the knife repeated twice in one sentenceand concluding with a feminized metaphor of a death rattle as a sanguinary birththis is a brilliantly compressed piece of prose.
Apart from one brief chapter in Union Streeta lonely pensioners encounter with a prostituteBarkers third novel is the first to feature a male point of view. Lizas England (originally The Centurys Daughter) crosscuts between Liza, an elderly woman exactly as old as the twentieth century, and Stephen, a young social worker whos trying to persuade Liza to move out of her condemned row house. Half the chapters are Lizas memories of her long, difficult life. The other half follow Stephen as he deals with the violent youths who make up his chief clientele; pursues furtive sex with other men; and copes with the death of his father. In her previous books, Barker has shown us men in the throes of sex and death from a womans point of view, but now we hear directly from a man in his most intimate moments. In one significant passage, Barker brings sex and death together in a moment of epiphany. Sleeping in his parents old bedroom on the day of his fathers death, Stephen masturbates to comfort himself:
His fathers death pressed in on him, a physical force, boring through the jelly-filled sockets of his eyes and into his skull. He fought it, mind and body together, denying the right it seemed to be asserting over him. His hand crept down to his cock, which was small and moist. He forced it to respond, calling up images, switching from one to another as time and again they failed, forcing life into the limp flesh until at last it started to swell, throbbed, swelled again, stood up proud and curved and hard in his hand. Then with grinning teeth and labouring breath he set to work to expel the death from his body, jerking it out of himself in spasm after shuddering spasm, until at last it fell, hot and thick and creamy, on his arched belly and slackening hand.
Barker neither balks at writing sex from the point of view of the other gender nor trumpets her own audacity. She just gets on with it, unblinkered and unsentimental.
Between Lizas England and the trilogy is The Man Who Wasnt There (1988), Barkers most experimental and least satisfying work, the story of 12-year-old Colin, whose father died before he was born and whose mother is a nightclub worker. The powerful evocation of Colins hunger for a father is undercut by Barkers use of a noirish, confusing espionage screenplay meant to represent Colins fantasy attempt to make sense of his fathers absence. The male protagonist notwithstanding, this may be Barkers most autobiographical bookshe was born out of wedlock in 1943 and raised mainly by her grandparentsand proof that some writers do their best writing at the furthest remove from their own experience.
Barkers three World War I novelsRegeneration (1991), The Eye in the Door (1993), and The Ghost Road (1995), which won the Booker Prizeare best considered as one work, spanning 16 months from July 1917 to the death of the poet Wilfrid Owen only days before the Armistice in November 1918. The focus throughout is on men trying to heal the damage done to other men by violence. There is shocking brutality in these novels, but for the most part it is the anonymous brutality of trench warfare, in which men are wounded, maimed, and killed by other men whom they never see. The books are not so much about violence itself as they are about its psychic costs. Barker does not shy away from male rage in these pages, but she has also written one of the most moving accounts in modern literature of mens loyalty and tenderness toward other men.
Regeneration begins with two historical characters who expand the range of Barkers men beyond the working class: Siegfried Sassoon, the wealthy poet who served with distinction as a second lieutenant and whose disgust with the war led to a public antiwar declaration, and William Rivers, a pioneering anthropologist and one of the first British Freudian psychologists. Sassoons friend, the poet Robert Graves, arranges to have him declared medically unfit, i.e., shell-shocked, and sent to the relatively comfortable Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, where Sassoon plays golf, talks poetry with Wilfrid Owen, and is treated by Rivers.
The sparring matches between Rivers and Sassoon make up much of Regeneration. The powers that be, represented reluctantly by Rivers, have a vested interest in showing that Sassoons protest is the result of battle stress, while it is in Sassoons interest to prove himself sane so that his antiwar declaration isnt for nothing. In other words, it is better for the war effort if Sassoon stays safely in hospital for the rest of the war, while its better for Sassoon if he ends up in prison or back in the trenches. During their first meeting, Rivers asks Sassoon about throwing away his MC ribbon, a decoration for conspicuous bravery under fire:
Sassoon had started pulling at a loose thread on the breast of his tunic. Rivers watched him for a while. You mustve been in agony when you did that.
Sassoon lowered his hand. No-o. Agonys lying in a shell-hole with your legs shot off. I was upset. For a moment he looked almost hostile, then he relaxed. It was a futile gesture. Im not particularly proud of it.
You threw it in the Mersey, didnt you?
Yes. It wasnt heavy enough to sink, so it justa glint of amusementbobbed around. There was a ship sailing past, quite a long way out, in the estuary, and I looked at this little scrap of ribbon floating and I looked at the ship, and I thought that me trying to stop the war was a bit like trying to stop the ship would have been. You know, all theydve seen from the deck was this little figure jumping up and down, waving its arms, and they wouldntve known what on earth it was getting so excited about.
So you realized then that it was futile?
Sassoon lifted his head. It still had to be done. You cant just acquiesce.
Further complicating the books moral predicament is Barkers greatest creation, a working-class officer named Billy Prior. Initially Priors trauma in the trenches has left him literally speechless, but when Rivers gets him to talk, Billy turns out to be scabrously angry and anxious to return to the front. Although they hardly interact with each other, Prior and Sassoon are implicitly contrasted throughout. Both are conspicuously aggressive in combat, both have contempt for warmongering civilians, and both care passionately about the welfare of their men. Sassoons passion is able to find a political outlethe has the connections to get his statement read aloud in the House of Commons. To save his men, in other words, he wants to stop the war. Priors rage, on the other hand, is both more visceral
You cant talk to anybody here, Prior said. Everybodys either lost somebody, or knows somebody who has. They dont want the truth. Its like letters of condolence. Dear Mrs Bloggs, Your son had the side of his head blown off by a shell and took five hours to die. We did manage to give him a decent Christian burial. Unfortunately that particular stretch of ground came under heavy bombardment the day after, so George has been back to see us five or six times since then. They dont want that. They want to be told that Georgeor Johnnyor whatever his name was, died a quick death and was given a decent send off.
and more complicated:
Theres another reason I want to go back. Rather a nasty, selfish little reason, but since you clearly think Im a nasty selfish little person that wont come as a surprise. When all this is over, people who didnt go to France, or didnt do well in Francepeople of my generation, I meanarent going to count for anything. This is the Club to end all Clubs.
And you want to belong.
You already do.
I broke down.
And thats why you want to go back? Youre ambitious, arent you?
Prior didnt answer.
Barker never writes omnisciently; even in the third person, the narration is always told from one character or anothers point of view. Over the course of the trilogy Sassoon fades into the background and the contrast between Prior and Rivers becomes more important. In The Eye in the Door, Prior and Rivers are similarly placed, hating the war but occupying privileged positions of responsibility in its apparatus, Rivers as a military psychologist and Prior (because his bad lungs keep him from the trenches) as an intelligence agent for the Ministry of Munitions. At the same time, without being tendentious, Barker evokes the homoeroticism of men in uniform, contrasting the aggressively priapic Prior with the more cerebral Rivers. In the opening pages, Prior is refused sex by a girl in a London park, so instead he picks up a man and follows him home, where he vamps for the man, a middle-class bureaucrat named Manning, like the street hustler Billy used to be:
Prior ran his fingers through his cropped hair till it stood up in spikes, lit a cigarette, rolled it in a particular way along his bottom lip, and smiled. Hed transformed himself into the sort of working-class boy Manning would think it was all right to fuck. A sort of seminal spittoon. And it worked. Mannings eyes grew dark as his pupils flared. Bending over him, Prior put his hands between his legs, thinking hed probably never felt a spurt of purer class antagonism than he felt at that moment. He roughened his accent. Aright?
Rivers, for his part, is every bit as self-conscious as Prior, but his sensuality remains buttoned up. Apart from his sister, there are no women in his life, and all his waking hours are devoted to his patients. In the second novel, Sassoon, who returned to duty at the end of Regeneration, comes back into Riverss care, this time genuinely psychologically disabled. And in the same novel, Rivers helps Prior reach a therapeutic breakthrough. In each sequence, Rivers (chastely) spends the night with the man, sleeping in the spare bed in Sassoons room and offering Billy the extra room in his own flat. Nothing happens between Rivers and his patients, but his identification with them is so complete, it is almost like a lovers:
He tossed and turned, scarcely aware of his surroundings, while persistent images floated before him. France. Craters, a waste of mud, splintered trees. Once he woke and lay looking into the darkness, faintly amused that his identification with his patients should have reached the point where he dreamt their dreams rather than his own.
The trilogy progresses from the cerebral and relatively genteel in the first novel, through the sensual and the political in the second. One of the hallmarks of Barkers books has been her insistence on the sheer physicality of human life, and at the end of The Ghost Road she simultaneously transcends the rhetorical sparring of the first two books and brings the story violently back to the brute reality of minds and bodies shattered by war. In an unforgettable moral and emotional climax, Barker brilliantly crosscuts between Priors return to duty in the trenches, Riverss memories of his fieldwork in Melanesia, and Riverss current work with crippled veterans. On the same night that Wilfrid Owen is killed in France, a brain-damaged soldier named Hallet is dying, watched over by Rivers, Hallets parents, and a ward full of wounded men:
So far, except for the twice repeated whisper and the wordless cries, Hallet had been silent, but now the whisper began again, only more loudly. Shotvarfet. Shotvarfet. Again and again, increasing in volume as he directed all his strength into the cry. His mother tried to soothe him, but he didnt hear her. Shotvarfet. Shotvarfet. Again and again, each time louder, ringing across the ward. He opened his one eye and gazed directly at Rivers, who had come from behind the screens and was standing at the foot of his bed.
Whats he saying? Major Hallet asked.
Rivers opened his mouth to say he didnt know and then realized he did. Hes saying, Its not worth it.
Oh, it is worth it, is is, Major Hallet said, gripping his sons hand. The man was in agony. He hardly knew what he was saying.
The cry arose as if he hadnt spoken, and now the other patients were growing restless. A buzz of protest not against the cry, but in support of it, a wordless murmur from damaged brains and drooping mouths.
Barkers first post-Regeneration novel returns to the present day but shifts the focus to the middle class. Another World (1998) is a patently transitional work, centered around Nick, an academic making a new family with his pregnant wife Fran; they have a toddler of their own, and each has a child from a previous marriage. The character of Nicks working-class grandfather Geordie, an ancient veteran of World War I, recalls Barkers earlier books, and the character of Gareth, Frans troubled son, anticipates her next two. Bullied by older kids, resentful of his stepsister, addicted to violent computer games, Gareth withdraws into an almost sociopathic rage. Billy Priors rage, at least, could be released on the battlefield or in rough sex, but Gareths fear, which is as real to a middle-class 11-year-old as Priors fear of violent death in the trenches, drives him to commit furtive acts of violence against his infant stepbrother. Barker effortlessly walks the line between explaining Gareths behavior and excusing it, showing how Nietzsches abyss can open at ones feet without warning, even in a suburban parking lot.
Up to and including Gareth, Barkers angry men have embodied the Auden lines about the genealogy of sufferingI and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn, / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return. She has taken considerable pains to show how male violence is the result of poverty, impotenceboth political and sexualand psychological trauma. Even the child rapist of Union Street is depicted as damaged goods, acting out a hurt that was acted upon him. In her two most recent books, however, Barker has introduced a character whose evil is less sociologically explicable. Having investigated the effects of trauma on the lives of men, Barker is now confronting the metaphysics of an ineffable evil.
In the opening pages of Border Crossing (2001), a young man named Ian Wilkinson is rescued from drowning by a psychologist named Tom Seymour. In a coincidence that turns out not to be a coincidence at all, we learn that Ian is really Danny Miller, a young man who served time for committing a murder as a child, convicted largely on the expert testimony of Seymour. The novel rambles some from this central situation, but the main story is the relationship of therapist to troubled patient. It is reminiscent of Rivers and Billy Prior, though Seymour is less monkish than Rivers, and Miller more of a sociopath and an enigma than Prior. Whereas Priors anger seemed permissible given his circumstances, Dannys palpable menace is almost inexplicable. The particulars of his casehe murdered an old woman for some insurance moneyare explored in his sessions with Seymour, but the deeper reasons for his crime are never made clear, to the reader, to Seymour, or even to Danny himself. Indeed, the most revealing passage in the book is not about Danny but one of Seymours own boyhood memories, of a time when he and a friend nearly killed a younger boy by throwing stones at him. Why did they do it? wonders Seymour (note the pronoun):
Because they were frightened, because they shouldnt have been there at all,
because they knew they were going to get into trouble, because they hated him,
because he was a problem, because neither could be the first to back down.
Then, a moment later:
Had he known at the time that what he was doing was wrong? Yes, undoubtedly. His parents had been easy, tolerant, in many ways, but in all essential matters the moral teaching had been firm and clear. Cruelty to animals, deliberate unkindness, bullying smaller children: these were major crimes. What interested him was how little sense of responsibility he felt now. If somebody had asked him about that afternoon, hed have said something like Kids can be very cruel. Not I was very cruel. Kids can be very cruel. He knew hed done it, he remembered it clearly, hed known then, and accepted now, that it was wrong, but the sense of moral responsibility was missing. In spite of the connecting thread of memory, the person whod done that was not sufficiently like his present self for him to feel guilt.
Its not clear just how gendered a judgment Barker intends. She doesnt explicitly exempt women from this frightening amorality, but none of her female characters commits the kind of violence committed by men. Even the prostitute who kills in Blow Your House Downdoes it out of panic, not out of some ineffable urge.
And even when the violence of her male characters is unjustifiable, it is at least comprehensible. Danny is a more equivocal character, and he reappears, as menacing as ever, in her latest book, Double Vision (2003). In this novel, for the first time since Lizas England, a male and a female character get equal time, the two of them linked by tragedy. Stephen Sharkey is a journalist whose photographer partner, Ben Frobisher, is killed covering the war in Afghanistan. Stephen retreats to his brothers house in the English countryside to write a book. One of his neighbors is Kate Frobisher, Bens widow, a sculptor who is creating a massive crucifix for a local church. The other important link between these two characters is none other than Danny Miller, now called Peter Wingrave, his cover having been blown by the tabloid press at the end of the previous novel. Kate hires him to assist with her work, and Stephen, who finds Peter both frightening and compelling, offers to help him place his short stories with a publisher.
For a book with so much death in its background, Double Vision is a surprisingly gentle comedy of rural manners, sort of Jane Austen plus sex. Certain elements of the plot stray close to cliché: the local vicar is sleeping with his adoring housekeeper; Stephens brother, a doctor, is cheating on his wife; Stephen himself starts an
affair with his brothers 19-year-old au pair,
Justine. Underlying it all, though, is a dark, almost gothic undercurrent associated with the troubled, charismatic Peter. The most striking scene in the book invokes the strongest tradition of northern-English
prose, that of the Bronte sisters, as Kate goes to her studio one nightin the middle of a thunderstorm, no lessto
discover Peter enacting a strange ritual with her half-finished sculpture:
Her mind grappled with the wrongness of the image, and then she realized he was wearing her clothes, even to the fur hat with earflaps that she sometimes wore when the studio was really cold. He looked ridiculousand terrifying. Deranged. His bare arms protruded from the plaster-daubed fishermans smock. She was a tall woman, but on him the sleeves were barely past his elbows, and his legs stuck out of her tracksuit bottoms, bare legs, white and hairy in the torchlight, more clearly visible than the rest of him. Only her moon boots defeated him. He was barefoot, his strong prehensile toes gripping and relaxing as his feet moved across the mess of white plaster dust, towards the figure, pause, strike, away.
Its as if Charlotte and Emily had collaborated, rolling Heathcliff and the first Mrs. Rochester into one terrifying character.
Indeed, Peters behavior here is creepier than anything in the earlier book, but in the end, he doesnt actually hurt anybody. And no one actually confronts him with his behavior; Kate never tells him what she saw but simply lets him go, with the excuse that she no longer needs his help. The one dramatized act of violencean assault on Justine by some thuggish burglarsis played almost as comedy, as Stephen fends off her attackers with a tabletop statue, a jokey counterpoint to the damage Peter seems to have been doing to Kates massive figure of Christ. And, in the end, it turns out that Peter hasnt actually damaged the crucifix, so Kate is able to claim the sculpture as entirely her own. That the statue might be considered in part Peters work troubles her far more than any physical threat.
In the end, the book should either have been more ambitious to encompass all the themes Barker broachesthe aftermath of war, grief, the struggle of an artist with her vision, middle-aged passionor pared down to one or two plot lines, like her previous book. Her middle-class characters are every bit as psychologically rich and compassionately drawn as her working-class women and shell-shocked soldiers, but because the middle-class are so common in novelsdecent, articulate, muddledthey dont have the impact of a Kelly Brown or a Billy Prior, whose types dont show up as often in literary fiction. The book ends with the growing love between Stephen and Justine, in itself a rather remarkable development. Its common in novels by men to read of guys finding midlife redemption in the arms of a girl, but in womens fiction such men are usually depicted as crass, immature, foolish, or all of the above. Yet Barker clearly endorses Stephens love for a girl 20 years his junior, and her love for him. Barkers examination of ineffable evil seems, if not abandoned, at least in abeyance.
Still, even here, Barker writes with consummate authority about men. Shes never ceased to be a feminist writer, but she doesnt write about men with the contempt of some other women writers (Fay Weldon, say). Indeed, Barker manages to write more acutely about manhood than some male writers who are more famous for it. Certainly Martin Amis writes as graphically about sexuality and rage, but theres an undercurrent of self-pity and self-loathing in every sentence. Barker, on the other hand, sees the rage and loathing but gives full twitching, bleeding humanity to all her characters, even child molesters and children who kill. Her honesty is never ruthless in the strict sense of the word; there is ruth, or mercy, even for the worst.
Her more recent books strike me
as the record of a brilliant artist working her way toward an
even deeper understanding of themes that have haunted her since
her first book. Certainly nobody writes a scene about a man in
womens clothing writhing before a giant crucifix without
intending something, and perhaps the enigmatic Peters
dance points the way forward. Barker has used mens bodies
and mens feelings throughout her career to explicate her
complex understanding of the relationship of mind to body, equally
informed by psychoanalytic theory (as evoked by Rivers and Seymour)
and a bracing, working-class physicality (as evoked by Billy Prior
and many others). Perhaps the figure of Christ, and Stephen and
Justines rough, sensual fumbling toward a safe haven, point
away from a clinical understanding of the human struggle as mind
versus body and toward a more philosophical formulation
of spirit versus flesh. As Auden concluded in the
same poem in which he traced the handing down of suffering from
one generation to the next, no one exists alone; / Hunger
allows no choice / To the citizen or the police; / We must love
one another or die. <
most recent novel is Kings of Infinite Space.
Originally published in the summer
2004 issue of Boston Review.