Monday, August 3, 2009

The Somnambulist

The Somnambulist, by Jonathan Barnes, is a book I wouldn't have picked out myself, although not one I expected to dislike. It was loaned to me by a friend who said that in it, necromancy doesn't pay. So there was the hook.

It's a neo-Victorian novel, and almost every reviewer has noted the similarity of its opening paragraph to actual Victorian-era mystery/horror novels, in which it is important to establish the credibility of the narrator in order to present ensuing implausible events as true. But on the second page, the narrator admits that he will lie in the course of the narration of events and asks "how will you distinguish truth from fiction?" Well, it would help if you cared enough to sort it all out, which I didn't, by the end.

The novel is populated with a vast assortment of eccentric characters. The main characters are Mr. Moon, a magician/detective with a mysterious past never explained, and his assistant, the somnambulist, who never sleepwalks or speaks, and who is enormous and bald, drinks lots of milk, and doesn't bleed or die when stabbed. Other eccentric characters include the albino Skimpole and the scarred Dedlock, who work for the government Directorate, a Mr. Cribb who keeps giving Moon advice and claims to live backwards in time, a cheerful constable named Merryweather, a criminal called Barabbas who gives Moon advice, Moon's housekeeper Miss Grossmith and her boyfriend, Moon's sister Charlotte, who can't be near him for too long or "bad things happen" (making me think of the movie Hancock), two assassins named Boon and Hawker who like to dress and talk like British schoolboys, a group of spies who like to dress as Chinamen, various deformed men and women who display their deformities for a living, a group of pantisocrats, who dream of a Coleridge-inspired Utopia, and the Archivist in charge of the Stacks, a mysterious source of information available to all the major characters.

My major complaint about this novel is that not enough is explained. It begins with a man being enticed into a room at the top of a tower by a beautiful woman who promises him sex for money. When he gets to the top, he finds a gorgeous bedchamber and a feast with champagne. The woman begins to undress, and then the man's mother appears and a horrible figure bursts in through the window and pushes him to his death. Of all these elements, only the horrible figure is explained at all (he turns out to be one of the deformed people, hired for the task).

The part about Samuel Taylor Coleridge being preserved in some kind of steampunk apparatus and then reanimated is briefly amusing, until he begins to lose body parts and spew green poisonous liquid. His climactic battle with the somnambulist doesn't have any particular point, except that the somnambulist is clearly the only person who can stop him, once his creator has figured out that necromancy doesn't pay. The unreliable narrator--who at this point has been revealed as the necromancer--says that the somnambulist "worked steadily, certain that the city was in danger, knowing it was his duty to protect it," but I saw no reason why he would feel such a duty. There's some muddled metaphor about sleepers and dreamers and the Moon, culminating with Moon dreaming of the somnambulist, but I didn't find it particularly illuminating or interesting, particularly as the title character's relation to sleep-walking (either literal or metaphorical) is never clarified.

I found the most horrifying characters in the novel, the assassins Boon and Hawker, to be the most fun. When they come to kill someone, he sees that they are
"grown men, one burly, the other slight, both clad in flannel shorts, their legs knobbly and ridiculous.
'Morning,' said Boon.
'What ho,' said Hawker.
'Awfully sorry to bother you so early.'
'Couldn't be helped.'
'I'm afraid we're something of a deus ex machina.'
'Don't chatter on in Latin, old man. You know it's all Greek to me.'
Boon chortled dutifully. 'Hawker's got a wizard new penknife. Corkscrews and bottle-openers and a how-do-ye-do to get stones out of horses' hooves. Would you like to see it?'"
The reader is horrified by the offer, as the penknife has just been used to kill another character.

If there were more of that kind of fun in the novel, it would be different (perhaps more like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, to which it has often been compared). And if there were more of the Sherlock Holmes-type mystery, with each clue having some significance, it would be different. If the unreliability of the narrator revealed more, as Huck Finn continually does, this would be a different--and better--novel. Ultimately, though, I found it to be a little of this and a little of that all mixed together in what turns out to be a murky brew. It probably won't hurt you to drink it down--it's not that potent--but it's not a recipe you'd want to try a second time.

There is a newly-published sequel, The Domino Men, but even if it explains some of the many mysteries left unsolved in this one, Barnes has already lost me as a reader.


Nymeth said...

It's too bad it was a letdown, especially because it sounds like t could have been good if executed differently.

Though this alone - "The part about Samuel Taylor Coleridge being preserved in some kind of steampunk apparatus" - almost makes me want to read it :P

Jeanne said...

Nymeth, I found the Coleridge bits some of the best (after the schoolboy assassins), so that's why I included that intriguing description--what happens to Coleridge and because of him is pretty interesting, up until he's reanimated. Some readers have liked this book better than I did; it's gotten about as many good reviews as bad or indifferent ones.

Cschu said...

After my husband read this one and gave me his impressions, I had trouble understanding why he passed it on to you. (And more or less told him so.) I would just have said, "this is a book in which necromancy doesn't pay, but it's really not a very good book, so I would skip it, if I were you." But, for some strange reason, he didn't do this. For someone who is usually so reluctant to recommend a book to a friend, lest she not like it, this seemed incongruous to me, but there it is.

Jeanne said...

Cschu, I'm kind of glad I read it, but since it didn't come to much, I won't read the sequel. That's different from being sorry I read it in the first place, but harder to express.

FreshHell said...

I read this and enjoyed it. I can't remember many of the details, it's been a year since I read it. I would read another of Barnes' books.

Jeanne said...

FreshHell, I enjoy having read it. (A poor paraphrase of that old saying about writing: I hate writing, but I love having written...)