Violence haunts Pat Barker's fiction. It darkens the lives of the women in Union Street, the book that established her reputation in 1983 as a working-class, feminist author. It stalks the prostitutes in Blow Your House Down in the shape of a serial killer. It provides the gruesome memories that bedevil the shell-shocked soldiers of her acclaimed Regeneration trilogy, which climaxed with the Booker Award—winning The Ghost Road in 1996. Even her two most recent novels, Another World and Border Crossing, whose characters seem more secure, seethe with the anxiety of past crimes whose consequences threaten to invade the present.
Born in 1943, in the midst of World War II, raised by grandparents for whom World War I was a living presence (her grandfather was a veteran) in the north of England, where the brutal effects of the Industrial Revolution and a savagely unjust class system were still apparent, Barker was never going to be the kind of writer who dealt exclusively with personal relations and domestic life, though both these subjects are important in her work. She had too much to say about the modern world's murderous realities, too many questions to ask about our moral obligations when confronted with violence and its aftermath.
Double Vision (click here to search for the review), just published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, views this perennial theme from an intriguing new angle: the impact of violence on those who observe it, in particular the role of those who depict it. "I was thinking about how one would write about war today," remarks Barker via transatlantic telephone from her home in England. "It's inevitably from a distanced perspective, because very few people now experience it directly unless they have the misfortune to be caught up in a war zone. So that distanced perspective is the one we all adopt, having it filtered through to us by people who are representing it and interpreting it to us. I wanted to capture the passivity of that role, but also the ethical dimension of people having to think about what they represent and how. How much can people take? How far can you go in showing it as it actually is? On the other hand, can you afford to be so anodyne in your representation that people lose a fresh sense of the horror and of the price that is being paid?"
Stephen Sharkey, one of the novel's three protagonists, is a war correspondent. He covered the Bosnian conflict with his friend Ben Frobisher, a photographer. They were both in New York on September 11, 2001, when Ben snapped pictures all day, remarking angrily that the attack was "designed to be a photo-opportunity" and that his own work fed our "appetite for spectacle." The men moved on to Afghanistan, where Ben was killed; Stephen decided to give up his profession and go back to England. There, he stays with his brother in a small town that is also the home of Ben's widow, Kate, a sculptor. She and Stephen become friends, grappling frequently in the course of conversations about Ben's life and Stephen's work with the thorny question of an artist's or journalist's responsibility for the images they convey. While Justine, Stephen's new girlfriend, argues persuasively that television news in particular is "all pumped-up emotion... it's the voyeurism of looking at it, that's what's wrong," the sculptor and the ex-war correspondent have a more ambivalent attitude, best epitomized in Goya's comment accompanying one of the scarifying etchings in his Disasters of Wars series: "One cannot look at this. I saw it. This is the truth."
Barker took that statement as the epigraph for Double Vision. "I am poised, very much like Goya," she says. "He didn't attempt to publish the terrible images he created in Disasters of War. He was doing this for himself, because it was important to him to be recording the truth even if nobody else was ever going to see it. I'm very tempted by Justine's point of view, because it has a kind of austerity to it. You could argue for it as a religious point of view: you restrict your seeing of horrors unless you can actually do something to relieve them; otherwise you turn away. There's a kind of wisdom in that."
At the same time, she recalls a graphic report broadcast recently in Britain, shot by a television crew in Iraq that came under friendly fire, complete with "body parts lying around and blood on the camera lens. Here's [well-known British journalist] John Simpson, who's in his 60s and rather rotund, with pieces of shrapnel in him but absolutely determined to do his piece for the camera and say, 'This is what war is.' Perhaps people still need to be told. We forget that there's always a new generation that is idealistic, that doesn't believe war is actually as chaotic and random and barbaric as it actually is."
Random violence erupts into Double Vision when Justine stumbles on a burglary in progress and is viciously beaten by the robbers. Stephen saves her, in the process confronting his own murderous instincts. "He would have killed the man," Barker comments (the burglar fled before Stephen had the chance), "and he would have killed him in a situation where he could perhaps have done less. There's this pent-up violence in Stephen, this anger against all the injustice he's been forced to witness as a passive spectator for so many years. Suddenly it touches him."
Yet the robbery also clarifies Stephen's feelings for the much younger Justine, and the novel closes shortly after they declare their love for each other. "I was surprised by the ending," confesses Barker. "Initially, I was thinking perhaps Stephen and Kate would get together, but it's too soon for her; she's not open to that kind of relationship. Justine is so young that it's difficult to say that she and Stephen are going to be married or have children and all the rest of it, but it's not going to be a short relationship or a shallow relationship; it's going to mean an enormous amount to both of them. I was hoping for a happy ending, because the book is really about looking at the worst people can do and yet not allowing that to overpower you and distort your life. So I would have been very sorry if Stephen had not been able to rewrite himself and maintain his balance."
A Will of Their Own
It's always fascinating to hear an author talk about her characters as though they have a will of their own—which, of course, they do in the work of any serious writer. "I try not to think in terms of the characters taking over the book, because I think this mystifies fiction writing too much," Barker says. "There's always a tension between the narrative framework you need to get going and the psychological possibilities open to particular characters in particular situations, which may only become evident much later in the process. When this happens, you have to abandon the trajectory you planned and stay with the book until other narrative possibilities open up, as they always do in the end. What doesn't work is to pretend there isn't a conflict at all and try to force the narrative to its planned conclusion. If you're unwise enough to persist with your plan, you may finish the book in record time, but the characters take a terrible revenge by turning to wood."
She learned that lesson while completing Regeneration, which was intended to be a single novel about World War I. "Look at that final scene between Rivers [the psychiatrist treating shell-shocked soldiers] and [his patient Siegfried] Sassoon. Sassoon is going back to fight in France, and yet he actually is if anything more convinced than he was before that the war is unjustified. Rivers himself is becoming very doubtful about the war and yet is going to have to go on treating casualties of that war and sending them back to it. Neither of them is in a stable emotional or moral position at the end of the book. I was trying to make it seems as if everything was over, all stable and resolved, but the more I wrote the final chapter the more I thought, 'This is rubbish: no, it isn't!' So at that point it became a trilogy; it never was a book and a sequel, it went straight from being one book to three."
Though Barker already had a devoted following when Regeneration was published, that novel brought her a wider audience and praise even from critics who had previously pigeonholed her as a gritty portraitist of working-class women's lives (with the condescending implication that this was all she could do). "I was fortunate to have my first books come out [in England] from a feminist publishing house, Virago Press, quite small but very energetic and innovative," says the author. "They were looking for women's stories. I think otherwise it might have been more difficult for me to get into print with what I wanted to write at that time."
But over time what she wanted to write changed. "I didn't want to go on doing the same thing over and over," she explains. "I was beginning to feel slightly confined, because Virago existed to foreground the experience of women, and there's nothing wrong with that, but if you've got a marvelous idea for a character who's a man, it's a little difficult to be almost obliged to keep him in the background." For Regeneration, she moved to Viking in London and to Dutton in New York, where she had been previously published by Putnam.
"Union Street made the rounds of about 21 publishers in America, and then Faith Sale at Putnam said, 'Send it back to me, because I read it a year ago and I'm still thinking about it.' She was terrific, but after a while I seemed to have got myself in that slot where you have a wonderful editor with a wonderful list, but it's a literary list embedded in a very large commercial publisher. I've been very lucky on the American side with all my editors: Billy Abrahams was my editor for the Regeneration trilogy, and now I am very happy with Jonathan Galassi at Farrar, Straus—it would be ungrateful not to be!
"I value their opinions, but I wouldn't say I work tremendously closely with editors anyway. I like to send off a manuscript that I think is finished to the final comma. I may then be disillusioned, but I want it to feel complete because the nature of the task is really that you are solely responsible for the creative side. I have a love-hate relationship with that situation, because although I do like that feeling of being in control of my own working life, I'm also a person who in many ways needs to be part of a team—and there is no such thing as a team of novelists!" Barker lets out one of the giggles that periodically and charmingly punctuate her generally serious speech. "Screenplays are what people tend to do for a change, I suppose, but for every novelist who goes off and does that, there's a disenchanted screenwriter coming back to being a novelist."
There aren't any screenplays in her professional future at the moment. "I may go back and write a historical novel next," she says. "Curiously enough, writing in Double Vision about Stephen, who is doing this book about the ways in which people have represented war, I almost did his research for him: it wasn't just Goya, but Henry Moore's underground shelter paintings in the Second World War and the painters of the First World War. I did sort of an overview of the whole subject, which interests me." Although Barker jokes, "My recurring fantasy is to write something completely different under a pseudonym," it seems that war and violence have not yet relinquished their hold in her imagination. PW wonders if she still believes, as she once remarked, that "one gets stuck with one's themes, and I hope I am still stuck with mine."
"The alternative really is silence, isn't it?" she replies. "And I don't think I'm ready for silence just yet."