Monday, May 5, 2008
Darkmans by Nicola Barker
The other day I realized that this blog serves the same purpose as my high school newspaper - the Oracle. And so this is an entry belonging in the "Arts and Entertainment" section.
Darkmans is an odd page-turner. The plot elements and characters (a stolen envelope containing mysterious and centuries-old documents from the British Library, a secretive podiatrist and her many connected clients, a crooked contractor, a mentally ill or visionary German, and a precocious and possibly possessed little boy) at times seem like the novel is another iteration of Eco's Foucault's Pendulum or The Crying of Lot 49. History runs into the present in murky ways, in characters dreams and waking lives. A number of characters, few of them resembling any stock figures, are brought together for a few days in the Chunnel town of Ashford on England's southeast coast. A father and son, a married couple with a small son, a skinny and loud teenager, a Kurdish immigrant.
Darkmans' power, though, is in its uniqueness. The font is sans serif (jarring at first). The writing melds working-class youth slang with poised English prose. The historical motif of a medieval court jester popping up in characters' dreams and waking lives bears no connection with the more popular Knights Templar, Masons, or various other secret societies linked to immortality that tend to appear in books of this genre. The jester laughs, but he's also deadly, and his presence looms darkly over the novel's often comical plot.
Without going into too much detail, I think another reason for Darkmans' novelty comes with Barker's refusal to adopt the popular models of the fantastical/literary novel. The autistic child, for example, as the narrator or visionary: The Curious Incident of the Dog at Nighttime and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close are two recent examples. Precocity is also experiencing a literary comeback; I read recently that J.D. Salinger's Glass family has been replicated all over the place. (Everyone's a wise child!) In Darkmans, none of Barker's characters are precocious knowers, not even the boy, Fleet, who is in some ways the center of the story. He builds an entire French village out of matchsticks on the dining room table, and occasionally tells stories and speaks in an Old English that hint at the historical presence haunting the novel. His voice is eerie and oracle-like, but almost none of the characters take him seriously. In fact, when his mother is advised to enroll him in a program for gifted children, she listens politely although it is fairly clear she has no intention to act on this advice. (Advice given by a man who encouraged his daughter in the same way, and then had to deal with the fact that his daughter moved to Sudan, converted to Islam, and married a warlord.)
For Barker, the mystery at the center of the novel remains obscure. It cannot be dismissed as a mentally disabled person's point of view, indeed, the presence of the past in all of the characters' lives show that this paranormal historical slippage is not confined to the diagnosed schizophrenic. Barker's characters motivations are only partially explained as the ending quickly answers one small puzzle, leaving the other strings hanging loose.
In its imaginative earnestness, the book reminded me of the less successful Children's Hospital by Chris Adrian in that the supernatural is neither rationally explained nor purely metaphorical. Adrian's book ends (spoiler!) with a fiery apocalypse, angels and all. I wonder if this is some kind of post-X-Files phenomenon - I think echoes can certainly be seen on other television shows - Lost leap to mind immediately. Neither science nor logic can explain the mysteries, nor can they been taken as a manifestation of a disturbed person's psyche. In X-Files terms, Scully's science or Mulder's childhood damage are both inadequate explanations for the strange things they witness. Written nearly a decade later, Darkmans doesn't even suggest that it might be one of these two options. It embraces the unnatural, concludes with a startling scene, and leaves the reader with a feeling of unsettledness to match the displacement felt by its characters.