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.

About ejpollard

I was awarded my PhD from Manchester Metropolitan University, UK in December 2013. My thesis explored the notions of origin and ellipsis in the writing of contemporary British novelist Hilary Mantel. I want this blog to express the ideas I have in and around my academic writing. View all posts by ejpollard

4 responses to “Followers: The Behindlings by Nicola Barker

  • abrameld

    I certainly agree regarding the internet followers/following dynamic – it’s so easy to ‘delete’ a follower or even a friend on Facebook etc.and I admire Nicola Barker’s ability to articulate Wesley’s deleted status in a novel. Thanks for sharing – I’ll add The Behindlings to my ‘must read before I’m dead’ list of books!

  • patricia

    I have the urge to re-read this book.

  • petrolpetal

    ‘Reading your post opened a new way of thinking about ‘The Behindlings’ for me.
    I had got a bit stuck on the self-conscious and sometimes tediously overworked metaphors and similes – irritated, actually. Parts of it were SO overwritten.Being a HUGE fan of Barker, I was disappointed. But the more I think of the novel in broad sweeps, and focus on the times she achieves brilliance rather than the times what she tries doesn’t work, the more I think my overall impression was a good one. Certainly, the image of Kathyrn in the herons wings , even until the time she is pissed, and wedged in a spot and her wings are skew and her face smeared with blood is unforgettable.

    I am a HUGE fan of Nicola Barker, but to me the Behindlings seems like her first rather than 7th novel.

    • ejpollard

      It actually took me three attempts to finish reading The Behindlings! What made me return to it (over and over) was my fascination with the concept of the ‘behindling’, as an identity. I am not sure I ever came to terms with this fascination, but then Barker is not a writer to help her reader ‘come to terms’ with anything, as you will know! Thank you for your comment, and reading my post, and I concur – it is a rather self-conscious novel – but the un-grasp-able quality of the book makes me feel like I am always missing something, that it is always one step ahead (or behind) and in being self-conscious it is also doing lots of tricks I can only partially perceive. I am, of course, willing to accept that this might just be me though!

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