Something Rich and Strange
Monday, February 11, 2008
By Jonathan Barnes
Morrow. 353 pp. $23.95
Quite a few fine novels have come this way of late -- Ronan Bennett's "Zugzwang," Frank Tallis's "Vienna Blood" and T. Jefferson Parker's "L.A. Outlaws" are three -- but nothing remotely resembling Jonathan Barnes's strange, outrageous and wonderful extravaganza, "The Somnambulist." Variously a satire, an adventure, a mystery and a horror show, this first novel by a young Englishman is set in London in 1901. Its heroes are Edward Moon, a celebrated magician and amateur detective, and his close friend and associate, known only as the Somnambulist. There are echoes of Holmes and Watson in this pair, but Holmes and Watson as they might have been if they, their creator and their entire world had partaken of a psychedelic snack of one sort or another.
Moon is middle-aged, losing his looks and past his prime as both conjurer and detective. He hungers for a new case to revive his reputation. His mute but devoted friend the Somnambulist, whose origins are vague, is 8 feet tall, hairless, prodigiously strong and addicted to milk. He may not be entirely human, since swords can pass through his body without causing him to bleed or show pain. Despite his name, the Somnambulist does not seem to sleepwalk, or if he does, I missed it. In any event, it would be a minor quirk in a novel in which virtually everyone is grotesque in one way or another. Early in the story, Moon is approached by an albino named Skimpole, who works for a government security agency called the Directorate. London is in danger, Skimpole insists, and Moon must help save it. But Moon loathes the man and rejects his plea. "I consider myself a man open to the improbable," Skimpole tells Moon, and that is the only possible way to approach this deeply mysterious novel.
Moon becomes friendly with one Thomas Cribb, a monstrously ugly man who claims to have lived in both the past and the future, and may in fact have done so. ("You've no idea how complicated it is being me," he admits.) Others in the story include the Fiend, a condemned man in Newgate prison ("Hell's chief outpost on Earth") who is both a genius and grossly fat, and the equally corpulent Mrs. Puggsley, who runs the brothel that Moon patronizes. It caters to "special, unique tastes -- preferences which, to the innocent, unjaded eye of the reader, may seem distasteful and even repugnant." Indeed, Moon's carnal preferences must not be revealed in these genteel pages, and it can only be said in his defense that he considers them "the mark of an inquisitive mind and an experimental spirit." Another character frequents the Survivors' Club, whose members have suffered terrible bodily disfigurement, but in this sanctuary each can "relax without shame and hold his head up high amongst his peers."
Barnes amuses himself with writing lurid physical descriptions. Cribb, the time-traveler, "resembled a gargoyle crawled down from the roofs of the city and left to roam its streets with impunity." In a squalid London slum, "people seemed more animal than human, their faces grimy, leprous and grizzled." The Human Fly, a creature from a carnival, "seemed a second Caliban -- bestial, ferocious, his face covered with vomit-coloured lumps and scales." The aged doorman at the Survivors' Club "had huge eyebrows -- vast white things like spiky tadpoles mutated to a dozen times their normal size -- which hung precariously beneath his brow and cast strange shadows across his face." Good heavens, you say, is no one attractive in this novel? Well, Moon's sister Charlotte is something of a beauty, but that cannot save her from being threatened with a horrid fate.
Moon and the Somnambulist's investigation of a pair of murders leads them into the fiendish conspiracy that the albino warned of. A cult that calls itself Love is planning an armed takeover of London. Led by a madman, Love's thousand-man army launches its attack in London's financial district, slaughtering stockbrokers as well as police. All the while, Moon is trying to save both his sister and the Somnambulist from various killers. Also, a creature that has been rather imperfectly brought back from the dead joins the fray, leading to this memorable image: "He proved easy to follow since he left in his wake a trail of body parts (fingers, an ear, lumps of flesh and skin) as well as a lurid green track, like a giant upright snail." There is much that is strange, magical and darkly hilarious in this book, at least if one savors the sardonic and the bizarre. At various points it recalls Dickens, "Alice in Wonderland" and "Frankenstein," but it remains an original and monumentally inventive piece of work by a writer still in his 20s. Barnes seems to leave himself room for a sequel -- a consummation devoutly to be wished.