24 January 2009

Review: The Somnambulist, Jonathan Barnes

The internet is flooded with reviews of novels. I have never before felt the inclination to add another, until I read Jonathan Barnes’ The Somnambulist . I purchased it on a whim, knowing nothing about it. I saw it was mystery/thriller set in Victorian London, a promising setting, so I grabbed it.

Let’s quickly dispense with the thumbs-up-thumbs-down, how-many-stars-out-of-five part of the review. If this little review prevents any poor unfortunate from wasting their time on this novel, I will feel I have performed a worthwhile service.

What interests me, and the purpose of this review, is to look at why it fails. The Somnambulist is told exclusively through a narrator who confesses his unreliability right at the first. This is neither new nor fatal, but it must be handled carefully. The author must provide a mechanism to contrast the words of the unreliable narrator with a reliable source. The willing suspension of disbelief relies upon an internal structure that conforms to its own rules and order. The reader must, at least occasionally, be able to determine how far the narrator has deviated from the actual events of the novel. Without this touchstone, the novel loses its ability to tell a compelling story. It becomes the literary equivalent of sitting at a bar listening to a drunk tell one lie after another. Some are amusing, but the evening soon loses its charm.

Barnes’ furthers the problem by making the narrator insane. Three hundred and fifty-three pages of increasingly absurd and incoherent paranoid fantasies is more than anyone should have to experience without being a psychoanalyst. At least he or she would be able to make a few payments on that summer home in the Hamptons, slogging their way through this mess in fifty-five minute chunks. The pointlessness of the experience can be demonstrated by a brief look at the climactic showdown. Nine hundred and ninety-nine self-identified marginal people have emerged from their underground fortress in Victorian London and are slaughtering the money men of the City. They are lead by the insane narrator, who is accompanying the resurrected Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and are intent on killing everyone in London and establishing a Pantisocracy.

The money men are routed, bodies litter the cobblestones, and blood flows in the gutters, but the tide of the battle is turned when two mystical, deranged hired killers and Coleridge turn on the attackers. Coleridge, a bit slow at first, what with having been dead for a good long while and having bits of other dead writers sewn on him to replace those parts that had rotten away, comes to realize that this slaughter is intended to create his dream society. The horrified ex-dead poet unleashes his superhuman power and wades through the crowd cutting them down them like wheat before the scythe. He is hindered somewhat by weak stitches, and the borrowed parts of him begin to fall off in a sort of high-speed leprosy. Eventually he decides to head underground, seeking the peace of the grave.

Mr. Moon, the hero of sorts, is on the scene attempting to save his sister who has become one of the slaughtering army and his assistant and friend, the Somnambulist. A brief digression about the title character is required. He is a wig wearing, completely bald, milk swilling, mute giant who is the main attraction in Edward Moon’s magic show. The act involves Moon piercing the giant through and through with long swords. The giant displays no emotion, nor does he bleed. At the end of the story you still have no idea how he pulls this off.

Back to the climatic battle scene. While the battle rages, the giant is pinned to the floor of the underground fortress transfixed by twenty-four sword blades driven through him and into the floor. He’s part Gulliver and part mounted specimen.

I don’t have the stomach to go on. Let’s just say the hired killers are even harder to make sense of. And I suppose that is the point. None of it makes sense. The cover blurb from the Washing Post review is “Strange, outrageous, and wonderful.” My blurb would read “Imaginative and pointless.”

The problem with this novel is that it has no ties to the possible and is set in a well-known historical place. Because the reader knows that world, assumptions are made about the possibility of events. Historical novels are set in recognizable worlds that operate in recognizable ways. To set a story in a recognizable world and have it be told exclusively by a madman, shatters the operational rules of the historical period, not to mention physical laws. It’s as if Dracula was narrated exclusively by Renfield.

As you can probably tell, the magical realism section of my library is vacant and dusty. I don’t claim to have anything to say about that, as I don’t know anything about it and am happy in my ignorance. Perhaps this novel fits in that category, I couldn’t say. I do know that it fails as a mystery or a thriller (perhaps thriller is the proper category). When a crazy person is telling a story, anything is possible and therefore nothing matters. It is a variation on why Superman needs kryptonite; there’s no conflict when a hero is omnipotent. Barnes locks us inside the madman’s cramped and claustrophobic skull. In the end, I don’t see anything worth my time through those fevered eyes.

09 January 2009

Turning 50

Well, it had to happen, if I just kept living long enough. On January 1st, 2009, while the somberly hungover and the smugly sober made resolutions and wondered were the hell 2008 went, I quietly turned fifty. I spent that gloomy day at my mother-in-laws, hacking, coughing, and experiencing the many and varied bodily entertainments that accompany a pre-Christmas bout of pneumonia that lasted into the new year, extending our stay an extra eight days.

Most birthdays are artificial road marks. Forty-eight was indistinguishable from forty-seven, twenty-five blurred into twenty six. But fifty is different. Fifty is a half-century. Half a hundred. Enough states to make up a huge country. Enough crayons that they need to name one "burnt umber."

I've been fifty for nine days and have no words of wisdom to impart on the subject.(Although it does seem that most people under 50 are full of shit.) Perhaps there isn't any wisdom to be had, but I have noticed something related to turning fifty. People aren't crazy about it, but organizations love it. Fiftieth anniversaries of events, companies, products, etc make the news, or should, if the self-promotion of the companies, products, and organizations is any evidence.

So, to give special purpose to my 50th year on Earth, I've decided to collect 50th anniversary notices - Here's to the class of '59!

(I started to google "50th anniversary," but changed my mind. This is a serendipitous list generated by whatever life throws my way. Feel free to make suggestions.)

Created in 1959

1. Me - What the hell, it's my list.
2. The Cuban Revolution - Castro 1, Batista/JFK 0
3. Motown Records - Hitsville hits the big Five-Oh
4. NASA - A decade to the moon, remember?
5. Things Fall Apart,
Chinua Achebe - They certainly do.
6. Hawaii and Alaska statehood - Obama and Palin are forever linked.
7. The Osmond Family - This is why I stopped googling "50th Anniversary".

That's it for now. Stay tuned for more 50th anniversary updates as I find them.