by Jessica Sequeira
by Xanthi Barker
Open Pen, 2019
The short novel or story can be so condensed it requires multiple scans, just like a poem. I read Xanthi Barker’s nouvelle three times and each time had a different response. Now I feel that I understand the book less than when I started, since the falsely realistic façade cracked into something stranger and more abstract. There’s no empathetic narrator or firm plot, but that’s not the point here. Reading almost as a prose poem, containing multiple layers of interpretation, Barker explores the more impressionistic, introspective direction that a nouvelle might take.
On first read, One Thing tells the story of a man named Len, grieving for his ex-wife and grappling with the general disintegration of his life. The piece seems a character study, an exercise in realism, a portrait of desperation. “The list of things he wants back could go on forever. He counts six before he’s had a second sip of coffee,” the matter-of-fact narration informs us. The “things” Len, a roofer in London, wants back include his smashed-up “Green Goddess” van, the last three months of his life, his sturdy knuckles, his favourite corduroy shirt, his daughter as a baby, and “ah fuck” — later clarified as being his much loved ex-wife, Violet.
This is a mood piece, and the tone is accelerated and desperate, albeit with moments of self-deprecating humour. As a slice of life, it works. But something escaped me. I read the book again.
This time it seemed to me a philosophical tract, with its meditations on what a “thing” is. Len says he misses certain things, and some of these are objects, but the “thing” he misses most of all is his wife — not a thing at all, of course. The question that really underlies the book is how one can grasp hold of intangible experiences without physical bodies or objects. There’s a deep anxiety about what is left of a person after he or she is gone from this world, in the case of a wife, or just out of sight, as in the case of a random woman Len happens to meet. What truly remains beyond “a handful of incomplete memories”?
Len’s frantic search for his ex-wife’s ruby wedding ring at the house of her current partner is an exercise in futility, not just because he doesn’t find it — all he locates is her vodka — but also because even if he did, the ring wouldn’t bring his wife any closer. The relationship ended years ago, in any case. What does he hope to achieve now?
Only on the third read did I grasp how deeply unreliable the story is. Something shifts in and out of focus. The thing sought is both there and not there. Violet is described as the love of his life and then as a bad mother to his affectionate but suspicious daughter. The new man, Ivan, comes off as cruelly cold but also beautifully supportive. The phosphorescent waver of descriptions becomes even more wobbly as Len swills vodka. The plot grows tipsy. Violet comes back at the end in a fantastic, sensual moment, along with the perfectly intact “Green Goddess” van and the gleaming ruby ring.
Len’s behaviour is outwardly condemnable — he breaks into a shed, crashes a funeral while drunk, etc — but the brisk charming voice of the omnipotent narrator makes him seem forgivable, if not entirely likeable. I wonder if the book would have been stronger in the first person, to amplify the sense of strangeness and the questionable credibility of events. There’s no good reason that Len is being described from the outside. What is the perception that is filtering everything? Our man in London comes to seem just another thing, a character to be manipulated by an author with a charismatic knack for words. He becomes an object, perhaps ultimately the “One Thing” of the title.
On closing One Thing, the entire world seems to shimmer at the edges.
Photograph by KylaBorg via Flickr (cc).