It’s something in-between. Something half-right and half-wrong. Like you stopped a third of the way through and said fuck it, that’ll do. Got off at Edge Lane. But novellas have an appeal and charm of their own; some of the best-known stories of all time began in that 30,000-words-or-fewer package and Nicola Barker’s Small Holdings, which I am going to talk about here, is a great example of the form. It’s the sort of story that sits inside the short-short-novel or novella format perfectly, never appearing desperate to brim over, nor blobbing about like a fat, out-of-condition short story who needs to learn how to walk past Greggs.
From its very start, Small Holdings lets you know that although the book is short, this is not going to be a pared down, skeletal template with no time for fun with language, dazzling descriptions, or detours down the darker alleys of the characters’ inner worlds.
Here’s how Barker introduces Doug:
‘Well Doug, Doug was a boiled egg, hard-boiled with a bluish pallour – white turned blue – a pale yellow yolk (his heart not soft either), and he was extremely entrenched, obscenely contained and mystifyingly, ridiculously, maybe even deceptively proud of himself.’
Elmore Leonard’s editor would have crushed that sentence to dust with his bare hands.
Small Holdings is a lovely, dark and funny tale about a handful of misfits who, in a warped big-society-gone-feral world, decide they can take over the local municipal park and manage it themselves. The park itself is a ragbag of unloved flowerbeds, rusty play equipment, weed-choked ponds and burnt-out museums they love so much that they’d rather destroy it than see it spoiled.
And that seems to be what the book is about.
It took me about three or four hours to read Small Holdings and that’s the beauty of the novella. It can be read in one sitting (if you define one sitting as four hours, and you don’t have piles) swallowing the whole thing down in one big gulp, making it easier to relate each part to the other and form pattern from the themes. So why write a novella? People who don’t like novels say they are too much of a commitment. People who don’t like short stories say that they hate the way that they just love you and leave you. You are thrust into the short story world and expected to get to know its people, its landscape, its ways, then you are just as quickly yanked out of it again. And the stories are always the usual Chekov/Joyce/Carver type of domestic dioramas that you realise in the end have been coated in a thick treacle of meaning that you had been eating without even noticing until you bit into the bullet-hard epiphany at the end. The people who think like this, these people who don’t like the short story, the novel readers, they want be immersed. They want to be placed inside a multi-dimensional world and made to live there, like in a theme park. They want to be able to leave the world and come back at any time and find things the same as they left them, their place in that universe assured. Novels are a month backpacking in Vietnam and a short story is a day out on the tram to Bury market.
So is the novella the way to satisfy both types of reader? A fulfilling mini-break for two in Workington?
I think that if the short-story-shaggers and the novel-adorers all read Nicola Barkers Small Holdings, it wouldn’t disappoint either camp. Possibly slightly longer than the perfect 30,000 words, it nevertheless has all the qualities of classic much-loved novellas like The Great Gatsby and A Girl Of Slender Means. The plot is in some ways a warning for those who feel that our public amenities can be run by a bunch of scruffy voluntary sector do-gooders who use lentils as money, think that Lord of the Rings is the best book in the world, hate American drama, smoke a lot of dope and like things to be made of wood whenever possible.
But Barker makes us love these unemployable outsider-artists who haven’t a clue.
She does it with her lovely descriptions;
‘His eyes were watery, wandering tadpoles in the jelly of his face.’
She does it with rhythm and repetition;
‘Was she a figment? A fragment? An ugly spectre? An invasive sprite sylph? A sprite?’ proving that there is room even in the cramped bedsit of the novella for these flighty rushes of words.
She does it with an ear for brutal and startling dialogue which smacks you in the face with its immediacy and honesty;
‘Make me wait any longer and I’ll fuck you up the arse with my stump.’
For people who desire the full penetration of a proper novel experience, it can seem like a quick dry-hump on your auntie’s sofa, and indeed there are limitations – there isn’t time for lots of flash-aways, back-stories and sub-plots. It can feel like a bungalow of a format which is able to spread out to the sides but never go up or down.
Myself, I am a little suspicious of its name.
Like some faux-fur confection concocted by search engine optimisers on an away day in a Travel Lodge. All leatherette eye-patches and gold-effect teeth, it is a product that uses the thing that it imitates to describe itself, while it so obviously contains none of those properties. In the same way that Chicken Tonight does not have any chicken in it, novellas have no novels inside them tied-up, waiting to be released.
But are they all muscle and no brain?
In Small Holdings, Barker can be poetic as well as practical; it’s not just about turning the story round on a sixpence.
At one point she imagines the city sitting on top of the countryside, compacting the earth and, ‘the city’s breath flowing out of its rotting mouth, warm with fumes and dark and stinking.’
And she breaks every one of the rules printed on the placemats at Arvon, such as no adverbs, no telling and above all, no writing! In Barker’s novella characters are allowed to walk around in broad daylight, ‘declaring tartly,’ and saying things ‘saucily’ with no regard for the composition laws set by our great creative writing institutions. Barker doesn’t care. Great similes too, at one point saying that the character’s leg stump is, ‘like the erect docked tail of a pointer.’
So novellas are good. And this one is good. And you should write one too. But the one thing you should not do is write a novella because you believe we are in a world of reducing attention spans, thinking this while Netflix tells you that you have twelve seconds until the fifteenth episode of season six of Throning Bad begins.
Chicken tonight is just a sauce. But sometimes all we want to do is lick out the pan when the meat has gone.