There is a character in Pat Barker’s novel Double Vision who is a would-be writer. This character mentions novelist Ian McEwan as an influence, a writer he admires. Late in Double Vision there is a sudden, violent home invasion that comes to the reader as a bolt-from-the-blue much like the one that takes place in Mr. McEwan’s novel Saturday. A-ha, I thought while reading, Double Vision, Ms. Barker is quietly acknowledging a little plot twist she has appropriated from Mr. McEwan. Good for her.
Turns out, Double Vision came out two years prior to Saturday. Was, Mr. McEwan, instead, inspired by Ms. Barker. I cannot say. I can say that I was feeling quite pleased with myself for picking up this reference, only to be disappointed by the research I did afterwards. Oh, well.
Double Vision is a decent book by an author who has written much better. In Double Vision, Ms. Barker follows tropes familiar to her readers– there is a focus on the creation of art along with a narration that shifts focus among a connected cast of characters. The characters revolve around a sculptor whose photo-journalist husband was recently killed while on assignment in Afghanistan. Their close friend, her husband’s journalist partner, has arrived to sort through a lifetime of photographs for a book he is working on. A youngish man who has been released from prison assists the sculptor while working on his own art, short stories which show promise enough to find a publisher by the book’s end.
While Double Vision is good, it’s very familiar, too familiar if you ask me. There’s a definite sense that Ms. Barker has done all this before. I found a tendency to sermonize in Double Vision that I haven’t found in Ms. Barker’s other work. While her characters here are all as fully realized as any she has done elsewhere, there is sometimes a clear sense of an author behind them, pulling the strings, leading them into discussions of certain issues in ways that do not ring completely true to life.
Midway through the book, the journalist Stephen begins an affair with a much younger woman, Justine. One evening they have this conversation while watching Panorama, a television news program:
‘Why won’t you watch the news?’ he asked. It staggered him, this indifference to what was going on in the world.
She shrugged. ‘I don’t see the point. There’s nothing I can do about it. If it’s something like a famine, OK, you can contribute, but with a lot of this there’s nothing anybody can do except gawk and say, “ooh, isn’t it awful?” when really they don’t give a damn. It’s all pumped-up emotion, it’s just false, like when those families come on TV because somebody’s gone missing, or thousands of people send flowers to people they don’t know. It’s just wanking.’
That last word was the give-away. ‘But you can’t have a democracy if people don’t know what’s going on.’
‘You can read the papers. It’s the voyeurism of looking at it, that’s what’s wrong. Do you know, some people never watch the news, on principle.’
“I don’t know how people tell the difference between principle and just being too fucking self-centered to care.’
People do talk about current events in real life, of course. People even sermonize about them. Bringing contemporary issues to the foreground in a novel must be a challenging task. How do you make the discussion organic, something that grows out of the story? How do you avoid simply setting competing characters onto soap boxes? I don’t have an answer, but this issue became a problem for me while reading Double Vision; it has not been a problem in Ms. Barker’s other novels. Not for me, at least.
The issue of how artists can represent extreme cases of human suffering is central to Double Vision, but too often I felt Ms. Barker should simply put her thoughts on the topic into an essay. I began to feel that her characters were functioning as points in the argument she was making rather than as characters in a novel.
Kate, the sculptor has become a bit obsessed with Goya’s later work. She and Stephen have several conversations about Goya through the novel. Towards the end she goes to visit the Bowes museum where Goya’s painting The Interior of a Prison is on display.
…She stood back. Knelt down. Stared. And because she’d only recently been talking to Stephen, she wondered whether any photograph, however great, could prompt the same complexity of response as this painting. Photographs shock, terrify, arouse compassion, anger, even drive people to take action, but does the photograph of an atrocity ever inspire hope? This did. These men have no hope, no past, no future, yet, seeing this scene through Goya’s steady and compassionate eye, it was impossible to feel anything as simple or as trivial as despair.
I’ve never seen the Goya in question, so I won’t comment on whether or not Kate is correct. I’ve seen enough of Goya’s work to know that she could be right and I’ve seen enough art work period to know that one should never judge a painting by looking at a photograph of it. (None-the-less I’ve included a picture of The Interior of a Prison above.) I’m not going to discuss whether or not despair is simple and trivial.
I will say that I was bothered by passages like this one and by sections of dialogue like the one quoted above throughout Double Vision. I couldn’t help feeling that Ms. Barker was interrupting her narrative to make the points she wanted to make, instead of structuring the narrative to make those points for her. I felt none of this reading her other novels. The Regeneration Trilogy, about a group of men undergoing psychiatric treatment, is full of characters sitting around talking about profound topics, but I always felt I was listening to a set of people having a conversation, not to an author working through her own ideas.
This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2013. I decided to move it over to this new blog today since I mentioned Pat Barker in my review yesterday. While this book doesn’t get a very good review, I remain a big fan of Ms. Barker’s work. If you have not read her, you really should. Start with Regeneration.