The Cauliflower

By Nicola Barker

(William Heinemann)

★★★★

Novels by English writers about eccentric Indian mystics are quite the thing. Last year,Stephen Kelman’s Man on Fire presented Bibhuti Nayak, who could with­stand levels of physical discomfort that usually constitute torture. The Cauliflower, by the gloriously eccentric Nicola Barker, provides a character study of 19th-century guru Sri Ramakrishna, albeit one after Laurence Sterne’s heart. If you haven’t read a Nicola Barker novel be­fore, you’re either in for a pleasant sur­prise or days of bafflement. Her narratives whizz and pop in all direc­tions. The Cauliflower begins decades before Ramakrishna (“as yet unborn, but already floating like a plump and perpetually smiling golden imp in the navy blue ether”) and questions whether he was a good man, a comic character or something weight­ier: a charlatan, a heroic visionary or a fool. The investigation is largely mediated through Hriday, Ramakrishna’s nephew, who manages his uncle’s earthly self while his mind roams more ethereal realms. Barker is the perfect writer to swerve back and forth between our world and wherever Ramakrishna is exploring. “It is both sweet and sour/Made with lemons and it fizzes.” This could be Barker describing her own prose to a tee. Memorable, complex but not to everyone’s taste.

Hystopia

By David Means

(Faber & Faber )

4.5/5

Hystopia may sound like the title of a Def Leppard album but it is the first novel by American short-story writer David Means. Readers will feel the connection to his curter work. Hystopia is, among other things, a story within a story or, more precisely, “Eugene Allen’s fictive universe” within a story. Allen is a 22-year-old Vietnam veteran who writes to remember the horrors he has witnessed. In his third term, President John F. Kennedy has formed the “Psych Corps”. Sounding like an idea invented by Charlie Kaufman, this agency wipes (or “enfolds”) traumatic memories from damaged soldiers, but it doesn’t work on everyone. Damaged souls such as central protagonist Rake visit chaos, carnage and kidnapping throughout Michigan. Means is snappily funny about everything from memory to history to conflict. After hearing Klein, a superior officer, recall his service in Korea, Agent Singleton asks: “I thought you were in the big one, sir.” “I said the big one, and for me the big one was Korea.” Klein then proceeds to compare the literary productions of past conflicts (“educated men in the trenches carrying a working knowledge of Greek and Latin, reading Hardy and Dickens”) to those of the current battles: “All we’re getting from this war is the desire to write rock-and-roll lyrics.” Wild, brilliant and unnerving fun.