Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Jonathon Barnes, The Somnambulist

The first thing the narrator of this book tells us is that it is 'entirely without literary merit'. I wouldn't quite go that far, but there are points at which I'm inclined to agree. The basic outline is tempting enough as a fun read. A stage magician, accompanied by a strange and silent partner, attempts to solve a murder and ends up embroiled in a plot that threatens London as a whole. It parodies the form of the pulp Victorian story perfectly, but it's there that the problems start.

The parody is fair enough, but isn't really played for laughs in the same way as, for example, Jasper Fforde's parodying of novelistic conventions in general. As such, we're forced to treat things less as humerous plays on classic and outdated devices, but as the USE of those devices. Almost by definition, that results in parts that, far from being the postmodern wonderland that the author no doubt intended, seem cliched and out of date.

Just as importantly, the whole doesn't seem to hang together very well. Plot elements seem to be shoved together before being explained as something minor and frankly rather uninteresting instead of arising naturally and necessarily. The characters are strange, but not particularly deep aside from a couple. The title character doesn't actually do that much, and is rendered a near nonentity in the climax of the thing. Even the choice of narrator is odd and appears to contribute little. I have a particular problem with that, because, despite the narrator, the piece seems to assume effective omniscence throughout. Yes, all of this is done self consciously, but that doesn't make it any better.

I suppose I should find some upsides. The writing is, to be fair, quite easy to read. The journey is interesting enough, even if it is eventually reduced to something fairly mundane. Even the plot twists catch the eye, though they fail to keep it. I suppose the problem is that this could have been so much more. It's a literary fantasy filled with strange characters, postmodern approaches and skillful writing. In the hands of, for example, Neil Gaiman, it could have been amazing. In the hands of Jonathon Barnes, it's no more than a vaguely enjoyable diversion.

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