It’s more in-your-face sexual, if you catch my drift (tell you later), and it’s hugely more political. Anything political in Regeneration was more or less confined to Sassoon’s essentially public school protest. Ok, that doesn’t completely cover it, but it’s the Establishment sorting out its little local difficulty in its own way. And there’s the consensus view (not least among Barker’s readers) that the War is run by duffers: nothing particularly contentious.
The Eye in the Door takes it somewhere else. By a strange chance – i.e. fairly broad novelistic licence – Billy Prior happens to have grown up in the same street as a woman who’s been banged up for conspiracy. It’s the Establishment doing something else it does: looking for culprits among those who aren’t One of Us. Occasionally Barker reminds us of bigger political pictures – the fact that brave little Belgium is one of the worst perpetrators of colonial atrocities, the fact that the trade union movement is looked on with suspicion verging on paranoia – so the big chip on Billy’s working class shoulders starts to go beyond the merely personal. It’s always personal too, of course, this being Billy Prior – and it’s a good idea of Barker’s to make him even more central to this follow-up than Rivers – but now he takes us inside prisons, law courts, the whole mucky edifice that our brave boys are fighting for.
Then there’s the sex. Billy Prior turns out to be sexually voracious. And undiscriminating, when the need arises – as it does, often. So in Chapter 1 or 2 we see Billy and a girl, and his hands are… up, past her stockings, he’s at the smooth flesh at the top of her legs and…. Nothing, she’s not playing. Rats. What’s a boy to do? Here’s a nervy young officer, all a-twitch and up for it. And he has his own place (of course he has), so before you can say Lord Kitchener it’s, well, you know what it is. As Billy Prior puts it in his own private thoughts, tossing off just doesn’t do it. I can’t remember now which character refers to being on the receiving end of this sort of malarkey as being a seminal spittoon. I think it’s Billy himself, in one of the unfeasibly articulate moments he has (articulate as in, educated beyond what’s feasible in 1917 England, even for a scholarship boy), referring to various early rent-boy experiences. My, he does get around.
And all this is just a prologue. Much of Part 1 is to do with the strange rooting out of homosexuality during the War years. So Prior’s twitchy partner is worried by an anonymous letter he gets; Prior tries to confront Rivers with the absurdity of seeking a ‘cure’; the unspeakable Spraggs, the agent provocateur responsible for Beatty’s imprisonment, is archly suspicious of anyone with ‘homogenic’ tendencies….
And all through this there’s Prior and his uneasy relationship with Rivers. Prior does open up occasionally, especially when he’s had a particularly awful nightmare, but it’s like pulling teeth and it’s Rivers who feels the pain. Barker takes a small enough image from the first book – Prior with an eyeball, wondering what to do with ‘this gobstopper’ – and runs with it. Now it’s the eye in the door and Prior can’t stand it.
To the end of Part 2
There’s a lot going on. I’m – what? – about two-thirds of the way through, and most of the focus has been on Prior. He’s becoming more haunted, literally by Spraggs and, in a worse way, by his own demons. Well, he assumes they’re demons: it’s terra incognita, as Rivers suggests, as minutes or hours of every day are lost to him in blackouts. He remains lucid but remembers nothing and assumes the worst. We’re in Jekyll and Hyde territory again, but Pat Barker doesn’t make it too easy for us: he doesn’t become a different person, and Rivers tries to reassure him he almost certainly isn’t revealing some feared evil side. I’ve just reached a point where Sarah tells him that she’s seen him in these ‘fugues’. He’s remote, hating everybody who hasn’t been in France. This is a theme we first met early on in Regeneration: then, Sassoon couldn’t help seeing civilian lives as a sort of betrayal of what is going on in France – sometimes within earshot of comfortable Kent towns….
Homosexuality is the other big theme. Manning, Prior’s shag in Chapter 2 or 3, is terrified by the anti-gay campaign that’s going on. As Rivers puts it, when respectable male camaraderie is extolled and encouraged, anything that might begin to call its propriety into question is demonised. Barker has almost Fowles-like fun taking the reader into the bizarre mindset of the arbiters of early 20th Century morality. And, in a neat development, it turns out that the source of Manning’s nightmares is a poor soldier who could never accept another aspect of the culture’s split personality. ‘Scudder’ couldn’t detach himself, saw the stark reality of every horror he was involved in…. And there’s an air of inevitability about his fate.
And still Prior dominates. He’s uncomfortable in his own skin, and the War has only made it worse. He forces Manning to confront his own class prejudice – and recognises his own. And, in the bit I’ve just read, a new horror is just beginning: he realises he’s unwittingly betrayed the class hero he’s been protecting. Oh dear.
To the end
There’s nothing simple about Prior’s betrayal of his boyhood pal. Politically he’s on his side: who would shop a mate who’s deserted from a stupid, pointless war? But during this last part Barker lets us meet Prior’s alter-ego…. And for this persona it’s just as straightforward: arrest the bastard. So, one person – however he might try to deny it – holding diametrically opposite positions. Pat Barker always gives the impression that she’s done her research properly. She never rubs your face in it but, well, with somebody like Prior you’re pretty convinced that someone suffering from multiple personalities really would behave exactly like this.
Prior’s a clever creation in another way: at the same time as being a well-realised character in his own right he also represents an embodiment of the split that Rivers has been trying to come to terms with, à la Scudder in Part 2. In World War 1, you had to divide yourself like this in order to survive…. But Barker hasn’t finished even yet. Re-enter Sassoon, injured again. He’s the real-life embodiment, and you begin to realise: all the main characters are dealing with this division within themselves. Rivers has the jargon: for him it’s dissociation, detachment… this war is making basket cases of them all. And while Rivers the doctor insists there’s no such thing as a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ condition, Barker the novelist brings on Prior in his ‘fugue’ persona. And it’s hello Mr Hyde.
One other thing. Barker’s always discreet about it, but one of the many things Rivers has to wrestle with is his own sexuality. Sometimes he’s in the position of being expected to ‘cure’ homosexuality, medicalised by an Establishment. And yet, with Sassoon, it’s clear Rivers can see what attracts him to men. We’re not at all surprised that Rivers has never married.