Barnes, Jonathan: Somnambulist, The

I received a manuscript copy of Jonathan Barnes’ The Somnambulist, which will be published on February 5, through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. I was engaged and entertained at the beginning, but ultimately frustrated at the unfulfilled potential. It’s a book that will have its friends, but I’m not one of them.

The Somnambulist opens audaciously:

Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever. It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frequently ridiculous and willfully bizarre. Needless to say, I doubt you’ll believe a word of it.

Yet I cannot be held wholly accountable for its failings. I have good reason for presenting you with so sensational and unlikely an account.

It is all true. Every word of what follows actually happened and I am merely the journalist, the humble Boswell, who has set it down. You’ll have realised by now that I am new to this business of storytelling, that I lack the skill of an expert, that I am without any ability to enthral the reader, to beguile with narrative tricks or charm with sleight of hand.

But I can promise you three things: to relate events in their neatest and most appropriate order; to omit nothing I consider significant; and to be as frank and free with you as I am able.

I must ask you in return to show some little understanding for a man come late in life to tale-telling, an artless dilettante who, on dipping his toes into the shallows of story, hopes only that he will not needlessly embarrass himself.

One final thing, one final warning: in the spirit of fair play, I ought to admit that I shall have reason to tell you more than one direct lie.

What, then, should you believe? How will you distinguish truth from fiction?

Naturally, I leave that to your discretion.

It then relates the bizarre death in 1901 London of an insignificant walk-on, which will eventually be investigated by Edward Moon, one of the book’s central characters. He is a stage magician, a possible mind-reader (the book raises this possibility dramatically and then does next to nothing with it), and a private detective of the Sherlock Holmes type. His companion is the Somnambulist, who is freakishly tall and completely hairless; communicates only through a chalkboard; and, during their show, is pierced through with six swords without spilling a drop of blood or showing any discomfort. (And, of course, he walks in his sleep, but the story does nothing with this either.)

Neither of them is the first-person narrator, who conceals his identity for 80% of the book. And though I was already losing patience, the narrator’s self-revelation was the point when the book fell apart for me. Put simply, a secret concealed that long had better have a damn good payoff, but this one was just stupid.

More, it was stupid in a way consistent with my other problems with the book, which I did indeed find “convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, [and] frequently ridiculous.” It’s full of fantastic things, but none of them are ever explained, put in any kind of context, or set against a rounded character or underlying theme. The net effect is of artifice piled on artifice, of weird things tossed in just because the author thought they were cool [*], with nothing substantial beneath. I liked some of the weird things. I would have been happy if some of the weird things remained unexplained. But as the book went on and the weird things accumulated, I began to lose patience. And then all the weird things, including those central to the plot, were left unexplained, and I felt that the book hadn’t kept its bargain with me as a reader.

[*] I attribute a couple of jolting throwaway phrases to the author being cute, specifically “bored now” before violence, and “Mister ____, he dead” (which is not quite anachronistic, but nevertheless improbable as an intentional reference by the character). There are probably others that would bother those more attuned to prose than I.

The publisher’s blurb compares this to Susanna Clarke and Neil Gaiman, presumably hoping to invoke Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and Neverwhere, respectively. As far as I’m concerned, the blurb would have done better to leave these authors out, as The Somnambulist suffers in comparison. Neverwhere is a light but satisfying coming-of-age adventure tale, while hardly any of The Somnambulist‘s characters are likeable or develop a satisfying arc. (Also, it contains a laughably bad depiction of a particular archetype that Neverwhere does well.) JS&MN is an ambitious look at the restoration of English magic, tackling class, race, gender, and their intersections, and ending with vast changes on the horizon. The Somnambulist has a much narrower scope. It contains not one female character who is more than a pawn or a victim, and its most central treatment of race is a short joke that undercuts a racial stereotype—by removing from the page characters from the race in question. And more fundamentally, although the book creates an unpleasant London, it doesn’t offer any hope for change. (The last pages attempt an uplifting note, but make no sense to me on logical or thematic grounds, and besides are on a different subject.) In short, don’t go into this book expecting either Gaiman or Clarke.

If you read this book, it should be because you are willing to be carried along by an inventive narrative, or perhaps because you have an unshakable love for unreliable narrators. If those wouldn’t be sufficient for you, I can’t recommend it.

6 Comments

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  1. “bored now” before violence
    The thought that immediately comes to mind (at least to me) is that this is a bit of a inside-joke-type reference to the TV show “Buffy”.
    (That particular combination of events happens in two scenes that would generally be well-known to fans of that show.)
    In other words, you’re probably right about the author “being cute” there.

  2. Michael: right, that’s what I had in mind (despite not seeing more than the first two episodes of the show, I’m familiar with the phrase), and it was very jarring.

  3. So what is the “Mister ___, he dead” bit from?
    (If I had to guess I’d probably say Pulp Fiction or some other Tarantino movie.)

  4. It’s from _Heart of Darkness_ (“Mistah Kurtz, he dead”), which Wikipedia states was serialized in 1899 before it was published in 1902, hence my comment about being not quite anachronistic).

  5. You have been so exceedingly thorough in proving how bad this book is that I am convinced I will never have the least interest in reading it! Ha. Seriously, it doesn’t sound like much, but I enjoyed reading your reasons why.

  6. Jeane–glad to be both useful *and* entertaining!

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