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.

7 comments:

Laura said...

Yes! The Oracle is back! With about the same size readership... Just want to say that I strongly support the presence of book reviews on this blog. It's like a book group, without all the annoying people.

gale said...

Annoying people, yes. I know about the annoying people.

Laura said...

I was thinking about it, and I think the blog is less performative than our writing in the Oracle. I'm sure someone has written about audience in blogging, but that's what seems radically different to me. Our high school articles were written for each other, yes, but they were often also a public statement of opposition to the values shared by most of our schoolmates. Whereas this kind of blog is more contained and intimate because the secondary audience is too huge and indeterminate for us to pay much attention to, except insofar the public nature of blogging makes us more cautious about what we say and how we say it. This feels more like a conversation in a public place that could be overheard...

gale said...

I'm not sure how aware I was of our audience in high school - I remember being shocked when a parent of a kid I used to babysit for told me that she read my articles regularly. I think my imagined audience was us, some teachers, and that was about it, until I discovered that it was much bigger than that!

But I agree - the blog is like a conversation that might be overheard.

JeremyC said...

Um, sounds awesome - I'll add it to a long list of books to read (currently I'm finally getting to The English Patient that you gave me forever ago).

I know I wasn't part of your secretively public cabal in high school, but I do like this "personal review" part of the blog. I'll try to do one myself one of these days, though I tend to spin my wheels a bit in order to articulate thoughtfully my feelings and opinions about a book, movie, music or whatever else might be reviewed.

gale said...

It's called revisions, Jeremy. Don't make me be all English 103 professor. Just kidding. You express yourself fine.

Joyce Cheng said...

These comments about the public "over-hearing" of our blog are worrying me. I heard that future employers often "google" job candidates, and these might come up. Not that we say anything terribly compromising - but Gale and I certainly betrayed religious views more than once or twice. Any thoughts?