The first thing you may notice about Darkmans is the abundance of adverbs. The adverbs spill off the page, annotate and inflect the dialogue, and generally break the unwritten lexicography of modern mainstream prose—to extract the adverbs at all costs. Darkmans, instead, revels in them ("insolently," "phlegmatically," "neurotically"—turn to any page and you will find them, like pillbugs underneath rocks). If the adverb is an untidy, uneasy part of speech, it shouldn't be any wonder that they appear abundantly in this novel, which is a cauldron of the untidy and uneasy.
Darkmans is full of paradoxes. It sprawls with little in the way of plot, and yet offers tons of narrative satisfaction. The narrative threads jump around and yet one never feels lost or confused; the whole is seamless, as if Barker quilted together a tapestry consisting of nothing but loose ends. And yet those loose ends—cast off from other, more "real" stories—manage to create congruity. The paragraph structure is almost that of a long poem in many places, with internal asides from the point-of-view characters punctuating the flow, but the cacophany of voices is seamless.
The novel takes place in Ashford, England—either a nondescript backwater or a bywater, depending on how you look at it. It is a region that has been split in two by the motorway leading from the Channel Tunnel to London, becoming the English equivalent of "flyover country." The road always pushes into the characters' stories. Characters stand in roads and risk accidents, or get out of their cars and have conversations in standstill traffic, shoo off a peacock that has wandered onto the road. The highway usually doesn't care about the bystanders.
Daniel Beede—just Beede, usually—is one of the main characters who had been shattered by the arrival of the Channel Tunnel motorway. His activism to try to preserve some of his community's architecture broke him some time ago. His son, Kane, is a debonair prescription-drug dealer, and the two couldn't be more uneasy with each other. Their circle of friends and acquaintances are always intertwining, however—Gaffar, a Kurd who is deathly afraid of salad; Kelly Broad, a well-meaning, uncouth ex-girlfriend of Kane who has a "road to Damascus" religious experience but never stops cussing; Peta, a forger who owns a flock of Russian fighting geese; Dory, Beede's best friend who constantly fights off possession (and frequently loses the fight); his wife Elen, a chiropodist who is at once the most easy-to-read and inscrutable character in the book; their son Fleet, who builds a replica of a medieval French cathedral out of matchsticks.
All of this is not to say that this is a "colorful cast" just for the sake of it. This is not a postmodern satire, blithely skirting the edges of these people's lives. Darkmans is not "quirky," but rather an unsparing look at how people consider their lives to be ordinary, even when the extraordinary descends upon them.
This descent comes from the past. And the past arrives in the form—or rather the spirit—of John Scogin, a vicious court jester of Edward IV who at one point or another in the novel inhabits the bodies of many protagonists (particularly Dory), and causes them to enact cruel mischief. Scogin comes from a time that has literally been paved over, and the true dis-ease comes when one realizes that he acted the same way in his own time. He is not seeking vengance, and he can hardly be called the villain of a fantasy novel. People in the novel talk about the fabulist events, at times, but only in passing, and only through the prism of how they experience their day-to-day activities, either trying to survive themselves or look out for others they care about. No one really gets to the core of the mystery—but it's open to debate whether there is a core to any of the events of the book, fantastic or otherwise. Often the more surreal aspects come from the animals that inhabit Darkmans—a spaniel that gives birth in the middle of a cold, wet forest; a mysterious stag; a red kite that drops out of the sky, frozen, with its eyes gouged out—giving texture to the idea of a wilder, more unenclosed past. But the animals are not inhabiting or foreshadowing a mythopoetic reality.
Thankfully, although the jester in the book is truly menacing and creepy—his sadism knows no bounds—Darkmans is also hilarious. This is a great boon to the novel, allowing the tone and pitch of the novel to match the pacing. These are not dour proceedings, and Barker lets us in on the jokes through the "loose ends" of narrative themselves. Nothing is explained, particularly—the various stories unfold and (as with a writer such as Gene Wolfe) the reader has to create his or her own relevations. Much as the characters themselves try to.
The medium for their explanation, of course, is language, and Darkmans is suffused with its variations and complexities. For starters, foreign languages (translated but in bold type) provide more counterpoints to the "normality" of English; Gaffar in particular is prone to long, lyrical diatribes in Kurdish (with Beede being the only other character within earshot able to understand him). And in the midst of the possessions and visions, characters find themselves saying things that they did not intend to, or spit out older forms of English through clenched teeth, beyond their control. Different languages and inflections rise up and try to cast their shadows on contemporary syntax, desperate to live and breathe.
And in the end, the reader is left trying to piece together these smatterings of broken language, which nearly destroy the protagonists of Ashford. Nicola Barker excavates, through her own gambits of prose, how we search for authenticity in the past. And yet more often than not, those are illusions, misunderstandings, or outright forgeries. To say the least, the novel doesn't wrap up with a nice bow on the package. But (to continue the metaphor) several bows are in the reader's possession, and he or she has to figure out which one to tie on the box.
Alan DeNiro is the author of the short story collection Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead and two poetry chapbooks, The Black Hare and Atari Ecologues. A number of his stories can be found in the Strange Horizons archives.
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