The Past Looms Large

By Steven Moore,
author of many books and essays on modern literature and currently writing a history of the novel
Thursday, December 20, 2007


By Nicola Barker

Harper Perennial. 838 pp. Paperback, $16.95

'Tis the season of huge literary novels. Those of us for whom size matters welcome with holiday cheer Denis Johnson's "Tree of Smoke," James McCourt's "Now Voyagers," two new translations of Tolstoy's "War and Peace," Paul Verhaeghen's "Omega Minor," Alexander Theroux's "Laura Warholic" and the 992-page "Adventures of Amir Hamza," an old Urdu saga (by way of Arabia and Persia) newly translated for the Modern Library. Crashing this boys' club from England comes Nicola Barker's 838-page "Darkmans," her seventh and longest novel and a finalist for this year's prestigious Man Booker Prize (which went to a much much shorter novel).

"Darkmans" records with manic energy a week in the chaotic lives of a dozen characters living in contemporary Ashford, near the British entrance to the Chunnel. The cast includes a prescription-drug dealer named Kane, his no-nonsense father, Beede, a foulmouthed teenager named Kelly (my fave), a displaced Kurd, a troubled married couple with a precocious son (he built a replica of the Cathedral of Sainte-C¿cile from matchsticks), an antiques restorer/forger and the shadowy title character, who seems to be responsible for the occasional supernatural irruptions in the novel.

For something strange is happening to some of these characters: mental blackouts, hallucinations, hauntings, confrontations with malevolent birds and various signs and tokens of the late Middle Ages. Many of the latter concern John Scogin, court jester to Edward IV (who ruled 1461-83), and the famous book about him, "Scogin's Jests," which supplies some of the plot elements in "Darkmans." Britain no longer employs court jesters; novelists now may fill that function, a job open to members of either sex.

Despite the supernatural elements, "Darkmans" isn't really an occult novel but a social comedy suggesting the modern world has reverted to the premodern culture of the 15th century, an era of spectacle and overindulgence, of superstition and conspicuous consumption. Beede owns a copy of Johan Huizinga's classic "The Waning of the Middle Ages" and has underlined the sentence, "So violent and motley was life that it bore the mixed smell of blood and roses."

Life in Barker's England is likewise "violent and motley," bedeviled by many of the same problems we have here in "Yank-land" (as one character calls it): drug abuse, overdevelopment, declining standards, racism and cultural illiteracy. And with a jester's license to speak truth to power, Barker conveys this in a motley style of great wit and daring. She relies heavily on idiomatic dialogue, deploys unconventional spacing and paragraphing, and exults in startling imagery and extended metaphors (with parenthetical asides), like this riff from Kane on his father's uncharacteristic refusal to meet his gaze:

"Unheard of! Beede was the original architect of the unflinching stare. Beede's stare was so steady he could make an owl crave Optrex. Beede could happily unrapt a raptor. And he'd done some pretty nifty groundwork over the years in the Guilt Trip arena ( trip? How about a gruelling two-month sabbatical in the parched, ancient Persian city of Firuzabad? And he'd do your packing. And he'd book your hotel. And it'd be miles from the airport. And there'd be no [expletive]air conditioning). Beede was the hair shirt in human form."

Barker also has invented an effective typographic device to indicate what a foreigner means to say while speaking broken English, but she doesn't coddle the reader with traditional transitions. You're often as much in the dark as the characters as to what exactly is happening, and you're propelled to read on to see not just what happens next but what Barker will do next with language. The novel's pages fly by, and it's a bloody larf, mate, due to the profane slang used by all classes of society. (On laundry challenges, the hostess of a dinner party observes, "Bright whites can be such bastards to maintain, can't they?") Surprisingly for such a raucous novel, there's no sex in it.

Barker's extensive use of dialogue and her balancing act of serious theme/comic style remind me of the late William Gaddis, who likewise used "The Waning of the Middle Ages" in his first novel, "The Recognitions," to show that in many quarters today it's as if the Enlightenment never happened. The ingenuity with which Barker weaves historical material into the fabric of modern life rivals that of Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon, though "Darkmans" is somewhat easier to read than their novels. Indeed, Barker has more in common with male writers like these -- add the late Stanley Elkin, Robert Coover, David Foster Wallace and the aforementioned Alexander Theroux -- than with her writing sisters. Barker once acknowledged this: "A girl writer is something I never wanted to be. Girl writers don't get taken seriously. I am a boyish writer."

Hilarious and erudite, spooky and unconventional, "Darkmans" is a dazzling achievement. I haven't read this year's winner of the Man Booker Prize, but I suspect Nicola Barker was robbed.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company