Ann Wickers hasn’t been the same since a stray golf ball hit her on the head.
A sometime cat-breeder and hotel housekeeper, she’s emerged from a coma with the identity of a spoiled, oversexed Frenchwoman named Frederique who loathes all things feline.
Life hasn’t gone smoothly for the celebrity golfer responsible, either. Once as famed for his long hair as his swing, Stuart Ransom is now broke, trapped in a lousy marriage, and has such a bad case of the shakes that he’s been reduced to using a belly putter.
Nicola Barker’s baroque ninth novel, “The Yips,” takes its title from a malaise most often seen on the putting green. Those same jittery symptoms become ubiquitous as she draws together a series of messy, stalled lives to farcical and often touching effect.
While its opening scene is suggestive of a surreal joke -- golfer Ransom, an aspiring vet who’s flunked her exams and a cancer survivor descended from a famous fortuneteller are all gathered in a bar -- readers shouldn’t hold out for the punch line.
Instead, the novel mimics a golfer’s leisurely progress round an 18-hole course, with digressions on everything from burqas to the charms of South Korean sportswomen. A coherent plot remains elusive, though its characters provide subplots knotty enough that you almost don’t notice.
Take Valentine, for instance, Ann’s agoraphobic daughter who dresses like a 1940s pinup and is a tattoo ace, renowned for her ultra-realist inking in a place so intimate it’s painful to describe.
Valentine must care for her niece while her brother and his girlfriend deal with addiction issues, and also keep the family financially afloat following the death of her father, who happened to be a neo-Nazi.
She’s taken a shine to Gene, who has beaten cancer seven times and is married to Sheila, a Church of England priest who found God on a train just as the drinks trolley came trundling down the aisle.
Then there’s the lippy teenage barmaid, the hands-on Muslim sex therapist and Ransom’s heavily pregnant Jamaican manager. The chaos is part of the novel’s charm. It’s apt, too, since in a way each character is searching for direction -- for a sense of his or her own plot.
Though it meditates plenty on faith, if it’s about anything “The Yips” is about celebrity, whose allure is shown to have corrupted numerous aspects of modern life. As Ransom puts it, “Bottom line: the life of a professional sportsman is all about the spiel.”
Culture is not immune, either. “Art’s all about the gesture -- the moment -- the event,” Sheila tells Valentine as she explains a plan that, were this a different novel, would tie up its myriad loose ends. “You know: the buzz -- the chatter -- the conversation,” she adds.
Chatter and conversation are what Barker herself excels at, and “The Yips” is told largely through dialogue. There is uppercase ranting and italicized disbelief, a scattering of profanities and a pronounced scatological tendency. For the most part, though, she works with the rhythms -- and inanities -- of everyday parlance.
She enjoys physical details, too, be it Ransom tugging at his underarm hair as he attempts to think or a barmaid’s chapped upper lip. What you won’t find here is much of a sense of time or place. Notionally set in 2006 in Luton, an unlovely airport town just north of London, like Barker’s previous novels it takes place primarily in a world that is hers alone.
For all her originality, she remains a distinctively British voice, her antic energy drawing on writers from Chaucer to P.G. Wodehouse and Martin Amis. This latest novel is more disciplined than some of its predecessors, and appears on the long list for this year’s Man Booker Prize. It is zany, tenderhearted and unflagging in its determination to entertain. If only Barker hadn’t gotten so lost in the rough.
“The Yips” is published by Fourth Estate (548 pages, 18.99 pounds).
(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
To contact the writer on the story: Hephzibah Anderson in London at Hephzibah_anderson@hotmail.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.