Monthly Archives: February 2012

Followers: The Behindlings by Nicola Barker

Since starting this blog I have become preoccupied with my stats. I could never have predicted this happening. I was idealistic in thinking I was writing only for the sake-of-writing. Yet once disillusioned I recognised my lonely heart status as ‘Green, keen blogger seeking avid followers to feed ego’. It has made me reconsider what it means to follow or be followed, and the tension between the two. In order to unpack this relationship I will introduce a very quirky contemporary novel by writer Nicola Barker, which is appropriately entitled The Behindlings (2002).

It is set over two days on Canvey Island and concerns the misadventures of a maverick named Wesley and his following, made up of various disparate (and desperate) individuals he refers to as the Behindlings. Doc, the most established member of the group, says this of the term: ‘”We are the Behindlings. Wesley actually coined our name as a kind of swearword, as an insult, but we don’t treat it that way; we quite like it. It unites us’ (p. 61). The main thrust of the plot though concerns the unraveling of a treasure hunt, or Loiter, organised by Wesley through a major confectionery company. During an early stage of this Loiter, Doc’s son drowned trying to retrieve a clue. Unsurprisingly, this is causing adverse publicity for the company and, more significantly, the death spoils the prize, which is Goodwin Sands – a place infamous for shipwrecks and drownings. Therefore, the company has been forced to hire Arthur Young, an alcoholic ex-employee with an ambiguous grudge against Wesley, in order to try to discover Wes’ motives and avert further disaster.

So there is an early distinction between those following and those following with an agenda, though all are effectively sustained by the knowledge that none of them are welcomed by Wesley. Yet this sense of distance within the followers/followed dynamic is a prerequisite for the Behindlings since if it was not then they would not be positioned behind Wesley, but rather alongside him. Moreover, to be behind someone also carries a connotation of support because, as another follower explains – ‘”he needs Following. Because – let’s face it – he is the very thing he’s so set upon despising. At root he’s the contradiction. He’s the puzzle”‘ (p. 62). And just as Wesley actually legitimises his following with a derogatory term, the Behindlings themselves enclose the ellipsis Wesley constitutes in contemporary life: ‘To all intents and purposes, Wesley did not really exist. Not morally-speaking, anyway. He was a vacuum. He was struck-out. Deleted. He was nothing’ (p. 100).

Although I highly recommend The Behindlings as a novel, it is undoubtedly the strangest and most estranging book I have yet read. However, its questioning of the follower/followed dependency and dynamic, particularly in terms of the play of power and identity, does not function to alienate. We are both followers and followed now – on twitter, on Facebook, on blogs – we weave ourselves into becoming Behindlings while the remove created by technology parallels the physical distance necessary for Wesley’s position. And where exactly is the emphasis, since the followed are themselves followers on the internet…? There is also the suggestion underlying buttons to share or link text/comments that a complex, yet traceable, system maps these connections evoking a united and coherent ‘we’. It is a suggestion I entirely reject, and not because I am a cynic, but decidedly because I am not. This is perhaps why I so loved reading The Behindlings because towards the end Wesley makes this explanation to an exhausted follower who has failed to piece everything together: ‘”Things can’t always fit together like a jigsaw, Bean. And nor should they.” “Why not?” “Because it’d be a kind of hell if they did”‘ (p. 532).

So, ultimately, my question is not about the followers. No, it is all about The Behindlings.