Clear: A Transparent Novel by Nicola Barker
The journey a book takes from hard drive to hardback is usually far from short, so even though David Blaine’s Perspex box starvation stunt took place just last year there’s something slightly disconcerting about reading about it in Nicola Barker’s latest novel. A deserved member of the 2003 Granta Best of British list, Barker is an unavoidably talented writer with a sharp ear for dialogue and well developed sense of the absurd. But choosing to base her new novel around the whole Blaine-in-a-box media circus was perhaps not the great idea it may have initially appeared.
Whatever you felt about the illusionist’s 44 day stint hovering over the Thames, tasteless publicity scam or admirable feat of will, there was no avoiding the blanket press coverage at the time; though Baker dissects the stunt with considerable intelligence there’s not much she can add that wasn’t documented in equal detail by the papers. She casts her eye over the crowd, the conspiracy theories and even Blaine’s friendship with Harmony Korine, the leftfield film brat (director of Julien Donkey Boy and Gummo) who was himself recording the proceedings, but doesn’t say much that hasn’t already been said.
Adair MacKenny is a smart-mouthed civil servant who’s been doing nicely seducing the occasional Blaine watcher until he meets the enigmatic Aphra, a rather bizarre woman with a fondness for Tupperware and antique shoes. Adair’s particular interest in Blaine seems to stem from his father’s traumatic encounter with an overconfident illusionist, an incident which makes for a neat detour into his past that the novel unfortunately never revisits; Aphra, on the other hand, has her own reasons for spending her evenings watching the magician sleep.
Despite vomiting on him the first time they meet, Adair and Aphra embark on a rather frustrating on-off flirtation, a curious relationship that often takes a backseat to all the Blaine analysis. Adair’s mind is frequently occupied in examining the parallels of the magician’s self-imposed starvation with Kafka’s The Hunger Artist or pondering the Semitic significance of Blaine’s actions. As a character his voice is richly developed, fresh yet familiar; Aphra however fails to fully take shape, she’s never much more than a collection of eccentricities. When Barker eventually allows us to find out some more about her, who she is and why her behaviour is so erratic, the novel is nearing its end.
When Barker allows the story to drift away from Blaine it reveals a highly fertile imagination. Adair’s Ghanaian flatmate Solomon is an unapologetically cool creation and some of the dialogue is truly inspired, a pleasure to read. She concludes that the beauty of Blaine’s performance was in his passivity, and the way the public were able to bring to it their own issues, their own ideas, and project them onto his transparent plastic box. His clear Perspex cube became a mirror, a window and more. And she’s right, up to a point, but looking back on those few weeks, the Blaine thing doesn’t – and didn’t – ever feel like the transcendent cultural moment Barker wants it to be.