The Secret Lives of Men
Pat Barker's ambitious project
June 1, 2004
Jun 1, 2004
24 Min read time
Pat Barker arrived on the literary scene in the early 1980s as the apotheosis of a certain type of feminist writer—tough, working-class, unsentimental. It helped that she had the right credentials—early patronage (if that’s the word) from Angela Carter, a contract with the feminist press Virago—but 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 Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, it devotes a chapter each to seven northern-English women from the same hardscrabble street—an 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. Barker’s 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 whoring—shivering in short skirts under a railway arch, servicing a client up against the wall in a stinking alley. It’s hard to imagine another book about sex so resolutely discouraging and unerotic.
So given the circumstances of her debut—sprung full-grown from the head of Angela Carter—it’s 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 (Liza’s England, 1986) to her tenth (Double Vision,2003) feature more male protagonists than female. Perhaps this male reader shouldn’t be so surprised, but considering how she started, it’s 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 Barker’s 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 mother’s 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 wasn’t Wilf. It was a man she had never seen before.
This is pure, distilled Barker—brief, blunt, grammatically simple but emotionally complex, a wonderfully compressed evocation of the new man in mother’s 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.
“Don’t leave me here,” she said.
Here Barker shows us a contemptible man at his most contemptible, but somehow, miraculously, there’s little contempt in her tone. She doesn’t just refuse to deny the rapist’s humanity, sheinsists 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. It’s not a passage (or a book, for that matter) to comfort a male reader, but it’s 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 women—Barker takes sides, but she doesn’t stack the deck.
The men in Blow Your House Down come off little better. As if the ordinary hardships of prostitution aren’t 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. There’s 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 book’s epigraph is from Nietzsche—“When you look long into an abyss the abyss also looks into you”—and 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 killer’s victims. Alone in the man’s car with him, Jean is suddenly certain he’s the one:
I thought about Carol, I saw her lying on the slab, I thought how he’d 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 didn’t 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 Jean’s panic in the breathless, first-person rush of words—“I held onto the knife” repeated twice in one sentence—and concluding with a feminized metaphor of a death rattle as a sanguinary birth—this is a brilliantly compressed piece of prose.
Apart from one brief chapter in Union Street—a lonely pensioner’s encounter with a prostitute—Barker’s third novel is the first to feature a male point of view. Liza’s England (originally The Century’s Daughter) crosscuts between Liza, an elderly woman exactly as old as the twentieth century, and Stephen, a young social worker who’s trying to persuade Liza to move out of her condemned row house. Half the chapters are Liza’s 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 woman’s 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 father’s death, Stephen masturbates to comfort himself:
His father’s 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 Liza’s England and the trilogy is The Man Who Wasn’t There (1988), Barker’s 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 Colin’s hunger for a father is undercut by Barker’s use of a noirish, confusing espionage screenplay meant to represent Colin’s fantasy attempt to make sense of his father’s absence. The male protagonist notwithstanding, this may be Barker’s most autobiographical book—she was born out of wedlock in 1943 and raised mainly by her grandparents—and proof that some writers do their best writing at the furthest remove from their own experience.
Barker’s three World War I novels—Regeneration (1991), The Eye in the Door (1993), and The Ghost Road (1995), which won the Booker Prize—are 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 men’s loyalty and tenderness toward other men.
Regeneration begins with two historical characters who expand the range of Barker’s 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. Sassoon’s 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 Sassoon’s protest is the result of battle stress, while it is in Sassoon’s interest to prove himself sane so that his antiwar declaration isn’t 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 it’s 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 must’ve been in agony when you did that.’
Sassoon lowered his hand. ‘No-o. Agony’s 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. I’m not particularly proud of it.’
‘You threw it in the Mersey, didn’t you?’
‘Yes. It wasn’t heavy enough to sink, so it just’—a glint of amusement—‘bobbed 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 they’d’ve seen from the deck was this little figure jumping up and down, waving its arms, and they wouldn’t’ve 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 can’t just acquiesce.’
Further complicating the book’s moral predicament is Barker’s greatest creation, a working-class officer named Billy Prior. Initially Prior’s 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. Sassoon’s passion is able to find a political outlet—he 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. Prior’s rage, on the other hand, is both more visceral—
‘You can’t talk to anybody here,’ Prior said. ‘Everybody’s either lost somebody, or knows somebody who has. They don’t want the truth. It’s 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 don’t want that. They want to be told that George—or Johnny—or whatever his name was, died a quick death and was given a decent send off.’
—and more complicated:
‘There’s another reason I want to go back. Rather a nasty, selfish little reason, but since you clearly think I’m a nasty selfish little person that won’t come as a surprise. When all this is over, people who didn’t go to France, or didn’t do well in France—people of my generation, I mean—aren’t 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 that’s why you want to go back? You’re ambitious, aren’t you?’
Prior didn’t answer.
Barker never writes omnisciently; even in the third person, the narration is always told from one character or another’s 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. He’d 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. Manning’s eyes grew dark as his pupils flared. Bending over him, Prior put his hands between his legs, thinking he’d probably never felt a spurt of purer class antagonism than he felt at that moment. He roughened his accent. ‘A’right?’
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 Rivers’s 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 Sassoon’s 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 lover’s:
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 Barker’s 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 Prior’s return to duty in the trenches, Rivers’s memories of his fieldwork in Melanesia, and Rivers’s 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, Hallet’s 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 didn’t 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.
‘What’s he saying?’ Major Hallet asked.
Rivers opened his mouth to say he didn’t know and then realized he did. ‘He’s saying, “It’s not worth it.”’
‘Oh, it is worth it, is is,’ Major Hallet said, gripping his son’s hand. The man was in agony. He hardly knew what he was saying.
The cry arose as if he hadn’t 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.
Barker’s 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 Nick’s working-class grandfather Geordie, an ancient veteran of World War I, recalls Barker’s earlier books, and the character of Gareth, Fran’s 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 Prior’s rage, at least, could be released on the battlefield or in rough sex, but Gareth’s fear, which is as real to a middle-class 11-year-old as Prior’s 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 Gareth’s behavior and excusing it, showing how Nietzsche’s abyss can open at one’s feet without warning, even in a suburban parking lot.
Up to and including Gareth, Barker’s angry men have embodied the Auden lines about the genealogy of suffering—“I 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, impotence—both political and sexual—and 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 Prior’s anger seemed permissible given his circumstances, Danny’s palpable menace is almost inexplicable. The particulars of his case—he murdered an old woman for some insurance money—are 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 Seymour’s 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 shouldn’t 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, he’d have said something like “Kids can be very cruel.” Not “I was very cruel.” “Kids can be very cruel.” He knew he’d done it, he remembered it clearly, he’d 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 who’d done that was not sufficiently like his present self for him to feel guilt.
It’s not clear just how gendered a judgment Barker intends. She doesn’t 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 Liza’s 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 brother’s house in the English countryside to write a book. One of his neighbors is Kate Frobisher, Ben’s 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; Stephen’s brother, a doctor, is cheating on his wife; Stephen himself starts an affair with his brother’s 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 night—in the middle of a thunderstorm, no less—to 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 ridiculous—and terrifying. Deranged. His bare arms protruded from the plaster-daubed fisherman’s 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.
It’s as if Charlotte and Emily had collaborated, rolling Heathcliff and the first Mrs. Rochester into one terrifying character.
Indeed, Peter’s behavior here is creepier than anything in the earlier book, but in the end, he doesn’t 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 violence—an assault on Justine by some thuggish burglars—is 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 Kate’s massive figure of Christ. And, in the end, it turns out that Peter hasn’t actually damaged the crucifix, so Kate is able to claim the sculpture as entirely her own. That the statue might be considered in part Peter’s 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 broaches—the aftermath of war, grief, the struggle of an artist with her vision, middle-aged passion—or 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 novels—decent, articulate, muddled—they don’t have the impact of a Kelly Brown or a Billy Prior, whose types don’t show up as often in literary fiction. The book ends with the growing love between Stephen and Justine, in itself a rather remarkable development. It’s common in novels by men to read of guys finding midlife redemption in the arms of a girl, but in women’s fiction such men are usually depicted as crass, immature, foolish, or all of the above. Yet Barker clearly endorses Stephen’s love for a girl 20 years his junior, and her love for him. Barker’s examination of ineffable evil seems, if not abandoned, at least in abeyance.
Still, even here, Barker writes with consummate authority about men. She’s never ceased to be a feminist writer, but she doesn’t 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 there’s 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 women’s clothing writhing before a giant crucifix without intending something, and perhaps the enigmatic Peter’s dance points the way forward. Barker has used men’s bodies and men’s 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 Justine’s 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.”
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June 01, 2004
24 Min read time