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The Somnambulist cover

Be warned. This book has no literary value 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 (p. 5)

This opening paragraph, from The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes, is perhaps an instance where an author provides a review of his own book. Indeed it has no literary value, it is implausible, the characters are unconvincing, and it does get ridiculous. The prose is okay, though.

What isn't mentioned is that it is quite a bit of fun, if you like this sort of thing.

The introduction is also no doubt constructed to pay tribute to the roots of pulp tradition, where asking for the reader's indulgence in conveying fantastical events also serves as the intriguing hook to read on about said improbable occurrences. Here, for example, is how Edgar Allan Poe, the granddaddy of both the detective novel and the horror genre, begins "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket":

... I feared I should not be able to write, from mere memory, a statement so minute and connected as to have the appearance of that truth it would really possess, barring only the natural and unavoidable exaggeration to which all of us are prone when detailing events which have had powerful influence in exciting the imaginative faculties. Another reason was, that the incidents to be narrated were of a nature so positively marvelous, that, unsupported as my assertions must necessarily be (except by the evidence of a single individual, and he a half-breed Indian), I could only hope for belief among my family, and those of my friends who have had reason, through life, to put faith in my veracity—the probability being that the public at large would regard what I should put forth as merely an impudent and ingenious fiction.

Actually, I think I prefer Barnes's more pithy version.

In addition, the opening of The Somnambulist also establishes that we're dealing with an "unreliable narrator." Indeed, the narrator states that, "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" (p. 5).

So-called literary fiction at times employs the unreliable narrator as a device to question the nature of reality and ultimate truth (Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods) or to provide satirical counterpoint (Chaucer's "The Merchant's Tale") or to portray coming of age realizations about the harshness of adulthood (Mark Twain's The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn). Barnes, however, is writing in a 19th-century pulp tradition, that of Sherlock Holmes and Dickensian plot twists, and the sole purpose of his unreliable narrator is to provide a jarring plot twist—one which, unlike those in some mysteries, the reader could not possibly anticipate from clues in the narrative. In that sense, Barnes (who as far as I can tell is not the Jonathan Barnes, British philosopher and brother of novelist Julian Barnes; but then I can't find much biographical detail about this other Barnes chap whatsoever) doesn't really play fair. For that matter, the one direct lie the narrator eventually reveals is such a minor detail it leaves the impression that somewhere in writing the story the author remembered he was supposed to do this, and just came up with something as an afterthought so as not to have to rewrite the beginning.

Our apparent protagonist is Edward Moon, a stage magician on the declining side of fame, as well as freelance detective whose once faultless powers of deduction are in question due to some hinted-at debacle. While the narrator says that Moon is an unsavory person, Moon actually doesn't act like one, despite a preference for prostitutes with physical deformities (we all have our little quirks, after all), and a general insensitivity to others (hardly criminal, and characteristic of those with singular talents); then again, we've established that the narrator isn't the most reliable authority.

Moon has been called out of retirement (due to unfortunate consequences of his last case) ostensibly to solve the puzzling murders of two decidedly unimportant rich people. This is mere sideshow, however, as the "solving" of the case leads to more questions than answers. And it attracts the interest of a secret government outfit called the Directorate, for which Moon becomes a reluctant agent. Of course, all is not as it seems.

Playing Watson to Moon's Holmes is the titular character. Here we venture into the time-honored question put to high school juniors who have to suffer through The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, one of Shakespeare's more ponderous plays: "Why would you name a play after a character who isn't in most of the action?"

While the Somnambulist is hardly absent from the book, he does seem a decidedly secondary character. Part of this is because he is mute—he communicates via chalk on blackboard with words that for some reason are misspelled more often than not, perhaps serving as some kind of counterpoint to Moon's intellectual powers of detective work. He is also Moon's literal foil in the culmination of the magic act, which relies not on trickery but the Somnambulist's literal ability to absorb multiple stabbings without shedding blood or injuring vital organs. He is also, for some reason, about eight feet tall.

The key to why the book is named after this character does not become evident until the conclusion, which I shan't ruin for you by revealing here other than noting it involves speculation about the fate of the Somnambulist in a recurring dream of the narrator after the recounted events have all played out. The dream sequence is in keeping with the book's overall literary geometry—the main character is a lumbering giant, the Moon appears when most people are sleeping, there's a character called the Sleeper who is a seemingly benign person but is in fact "awakened" when called upon to perform assassinations. And there are various dreams of an intellectual nature—of a utopian society that wishes to uplift the downtrodden, and of maintaining the status quo—which subsequently come into conflict, and devolve into nightmares. But to what point, I'm not entirely sure. Victor Hugo called Napoleon a mighty somnambulist of a vanished dream. While there are some echoes of such sentiment in Barnes's novel, they are only faint.

The genre of "New Victoriana" has been something of a growth industry of late. Barnes's debut is not as good as Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which has the substance of the source material it mimics, or even The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by Gordon Dahlquist, which while more lightweight than Clarke has much more involving characters and plotting than The Somnambulist. But, if you like this sort of thing, worth getting into bed with.

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

Bio to come.
One comment on “The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes”

It's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" not "The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn." #correction

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