The Eye in the Door, by Pat Barker, part II

15 Nov

The Eye in the Door, Pat Barker

So, I’ve continued thinking about class in The Eye in the Door, a book which, if it isn’t taught in universities, should be. In the end, Barker’s working-class “temporary gentleman” officer-hero Billy Prior, who secretly sleeps with men, is offered a cushy desk job by an upper-class Englishmen he cruised in the park in the book’s opening scenes. The upper-class man, Charles Manning, has unclear motives for the offer, partially kindness, perhaps, and partially buying Prior’s silence.

I’ve also been thinking about what an excellent writer Pat Barker is. On the micro level it has to do with complexity of scene and on the macro level, it’s the way she plays scenes off on each other throughout the book. The encounter in the park, mentioned above, kicks the book off, and is resolved with the job offer in the final chapter, but why these two scenes are the bracket isn’t immediately apparent. Plot-wise, Prior and Manning’s relationship is minor.

This is the first edition I owned of this book. Long ago loaned-and-lost.

This is the first edition I owned of this book. Long ago loaned-and-lost.

But, in terms of themes, the Prior-Manning connection is at the book’s heart.

Here’s part of the scene after they’ve met in the park and gone to Manning’s shut-up London home:

“All very nice, Prior thought, but not what I came for. He noticed that Manning’s eyes, though they roamed all over the place, always returned to the stars on Prior’s sleeve. Well, you knew I was an officer, he said silently. He was beginning to suspect Manning might be one of those who cannot—simply cannot—let go sexually with a social equal. Prior sighed, and stood up. ‘Do you mind if I take this off?’ he said. ‘I’m quite warm.’

He wasn’t warm. In fact, to coin a phrase, he was bloody nithered. However. He took off his tie, tunic and shirt, and threw them over the back of a chair. Manning said nothing, simply watched. Prior ran his fingers through his cropped hair till it stood up in spikes, lit a cigarette, rolled it in a particular way along his bottom lip, and smiled. He’d transformed himself into the sort of working-class boy Manning would think it was all right to fuck. A sort of seminal spittoon. And it worked. Manning’s eyes grew dark as his pupils flared. Bending over him, Prior put his hand between his legs, thinking he’d probably never felt a spurt of purer class antagonism than he felt right at that moment. He roughened his accent. ‘A’ right?’

‘Yes. Let’s go upstairs.'”

Manning is Prior’s class enemy—the phrase ‘seminal spittoon’ makes that clear. But the upheavals of the war have landed them literally and figuratively in bed together. How Prior will handle it is his emotional arc for the book. After being wounded out of the war, he’s assigned a desk-job in an upper crust intelligence unit, spying on working-class anti-war activists from his old neighborhood. He’s caught in the middle, neither a pacifist nor an accepted member of the unit.

Pat Barker, The Eye in the Door

Another of the book’s themes is surveillance, which dovetails beautifully into class, as the lower classes (and the sexually deviant) are often surveilled. Manning is a minor character, but the few chapters told from his perspective address how his sexuality makes him a target of observation. We’re also privy to some of his thoughts about class, a reference back to the first scene that’s dropped into the stream of Barker’s prose in a way that looks easy but is actually very difficult to do. Here’s Manning describing Prior:

At first, noting Prior’s flattened vowels, he’d thought, oh yes. Temporary gentleman. A nasty, snobbish little phrase, but everybody used it, though obviously one tried not to use it in connection with people one liked. But the amazing thing was how persistent one’s awareness of class distinction was. The mind seemed capable of making these minute social assessments in almost any circumstances. He remembered the Somme, how the Northumberlands and Durhams had lain, where the machine-guns had caught them, in neat swathes, like harvested wheat. Later that night, crashing along a trench in pitch-blackness, trying desperately to work out where the frontage he was responsible for ended, he’d stumbled into a Northumberlands’ officer, very obviously shaken by the carnage inflicted on his battalion. And who could blame him? God knows how many they’d lost. Manning, sympathizing, steadying, well aware that his own nerves had not yet been tested, had none the less found time to notice that the Northumberlands’ officer dropped his aitches. He’d been jarred by it. Horrified by the reaction, but jarred nevertheless. And the odd thing was he knew if the man had been a private, he would not have been jarred, he would have handled the situation much better.

In the end, Manning wields the power of his privilege and offers Prior a job, which Prior declines. The job-offer is a fascinating note to end the book on. On the one hand, Manning and Prior are both sexual outsiders and thus somewhat allied. Manning is offering Prior something of great value—the job would keep him from ever being sent back to the front. Prior says, “Manning’s offer was one for which a great many men would have given an arm or a leg, and not merely in the meaningless way that expression was normally used.” (He’s referring to men shooting themselves to get out of the war.) But in another sense, it’s a naked example of the upper class using its resources to defend and perpetuate itself.

Prior’s choice to decline the job is the happy ending.

“Prior nodded, glanced round to make sure they were unobserved, then took hold of Manning’s pudgy cheeks and chucked them. ‘There’ll always be an England,’ he told him and ran, laughing, down the steps.”

Prior sees how the whole thing works, and escapes, laughing. It’s a wonderful end to a wonderful book.

2 Responses to “The Eye in the Door, by Pat Barker, part II”

  1. Grab the Lapels November 15, 2015 at 3:59 pm #

    I remember reading The Ghost Road in college and hearing people express their shock that “Pat” is a woman. There was always this vibe that suggested she wrote well for a woman because she wrote about men at war.

    • Ivalleria November 15, 2015 at 6:10 pm #

      I’m so glad you read it in college! Those books totally deserve to be taught. And that’s funny about “Pat” being a man. I had a funny experience recently where I learned that the sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson is a man, which was funny because, having read Red Mars, I was like, “this is the strangest woman I’ve ever encountered”. A deep, deep space nerd with no affinity at all for human relationships. I believed it, but I always found her to be a fascinating gender outlier. And then no, of course, Kim is a man and it all makes sense.

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