The British author (Behindlings, 2002, etc.) riffs amusingly on a recent historical incident.
On September 5, 2003, American “illusionist” (i.e., magician) David Blaine spent 44 days in a clear plastic (Perspex) box suspended over the Thames River near London’s Tower Bridge. Blaine emerged from his self-imposed ordeal (during which he ingested nothing but water) 50 pounds lighter, and possessed of a paradoxical celebrity. Here, Barker considers possible motives for his stunt (homage to Holocaust victims, protest against mass consumerism), while sketching the varied reactions of the “community” of spectators that forms nearby, and comments—often in quite vitriolic terms—on the American intruder’s action (or, more properly, inaction). No real conclusions are drawn by Barker’s diffident narrator, Adair MacKenny, a minor clerk at the London Assembly Building. But we hear rather more from his Ghanaian flatmate Solomon (who has made a career out of absorbing and debating British pop culture), Solomon’s sweetheart Jalisa (who notes “hunger-artist” Blaine’s intellectual debt to filmmaker Werner Herzog as well as Kafka) and Adair’s putative girlfriend Aphra, whose obsession with collecting shoes seems scarcely less bizarre than the overhead spectacle observers have dubbed “Above the Below.” In this sixth outing, Barker eschews plot, offering instead excited commentary vitiated by deliberate redundancy, hectoring addresses to the reader, aggressive overpunctuation and lots of blank space on the page. Add to this the author’s refusal to develop any of her characters, and there really isn’t much more to this than one character’s banal summary declaration that Blaine is “like a mirror in which people can see the very best and worst of themselves. That’s the simple genius of what he’s doing.” Perhaps Clear is a magic act—because this essentially empty novel was long-listed for the 2004 Booker Prize.
Kudos to Barker for pulling that off. The novel itself is another story.