In Search of Steampunk

Top 10 Unanswered Questions after reading The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes:

  1. Who is Barabbas?  What is his past history with Edward Moon ?  Why is he chosen by Love, Love & Love?
  2. Who is the Somnambulist? Where did he come from?  Why doesn’t he talk and what’s with the milk? What is he? Who was his predecessor? What the hell happens to him at the end?
  3. What happened in the case Moon failed to solve that is repeatedly referenced but never explained?
  4. Who would procreate with Skimpole?
  5. Who or what exactly are The Prefects?
  6. Why Coleridge? And what was the purpose of b******* h** b*** t* l***?  (That’ll make more sense if you read the book).
  7. Are we really expected to believe the unlikely reason we are given by the criminal mastermind (I use that term lightly) for his whole evil plan?
  8. Dedlock & Skimpole – what exactly was the point?
  9. What is the Directorate’s purpose and why is it secret?
  10. What was the reason for the strain between Moon & his sister, Charlotte?

You may have noticed that’s more the 10.

My intention was to give this book a bad review. That changed somewhere along the way. It’s really not surprising. The Somnambulist may not be a particularly good book, but sometimes bad books happen to good writers. Jonathan Barnes is, in fact, a good writer who unfortunately made a mess of his first book. Or did he? As I reread my initial draft of this review I realized that what Monty Python was to Arthurian Lit is what Barnes may be to the Victorian Detective Novel.

The Somnambulist is fun in an absolutely ridiculous way.  The author definitely did his research and the result is a novel that pays homage to the genre. Arthur Conan Doyle, Lovecraft & Dickens all have a stake in the story… among others. (For the full list read the Praise for the Somnambulist found on the first page of the paperback edition).  That may be exactly why the book disappoints.  Barnes took on authors who first and foremost are storytellers, which only highlights the fact that he isn’t.

The main character, despite the title, is Edward Moon – a part time investigator and conjurer in Victorian England who has fallen to B-list celebrity status for reasons never fully explained.  Moon and his sidekick, the Somnambulist, are pulled into a strange murder mystery of seemingly Lovecraftian persuasion.  We are led from there through a labyrinth of situations, events, and settings peopled by characters which are familiar to fans of the genre – in admittedly twisted versions.   All of this is strung along by the flimsiest plot I’ve ever come across and told by an unreliable narrator who is generous enough to warn us of his status in the opening paragraph.

“Be warned. (See?!) This book has no literary merit 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…one final warning: in the spirit of fair play, I ought to admit that I shall have reason to tell you more than one direct lie.”

If an unreliable narrator informs you that he is unreliable, doesn’t that make him reliably unreliable? Hence he is no longer an unreliable narrator?  Why Barnes felt he had to let that cat out of the bag so early on is beyond me, other than for stylistic effect.  There is a lot of that throughout the book: stylistic devices and effects.  Often it feels as if the author has a list of plot elements and literary devices he’s checking off while providing a bare bones narrative structure to hold it all together.  Think of it as Steampunk (Google it if you don’t know the word) porn.  The story is only there as an excuse to get you to the good parts.

The good parts of The Somnambulist are the eccentric and wonderful characters.  Not least of which is the book’s namesake: a milk guzzling, mute giant who can be repeatedly pierced by swords as if he were made of sawdust. It’s a testament to Barnes’ imagination that the Somnambulist probably won’t be your favorite.  For example there are The Prefects, two adult psychotic killers that dress and talk like British Public School boys.  They leave a trail of carnage through the second half of the book.  Or Dedlock, the middle aged British civil servant and head of the Directorate, who seems almost banally stereotypical until you realize that no one in this novel is typical.  Or that questionably unreliable narrator who has a love / hate relationship with Moon that is oddly engaging. Again, Barnes isn’t a bad writer. If his novel fails, it fails because he is so busy running us to the next character and setting that we never really have the opportunity to explore and enjoy the one we are currently at.  He doesn’t give them, or the story, a chance to become something.  The characters’ motivations are flimsy at best, and other than appearing at the right time they do nothing to further the plot.  And the plot does nothing to develop who they are.

My verdict is that The Somnambulist could be a better book than it is,  despite being clever on many levels.  (There’s an interesting connection to explore between the title, Coleridge, and a Coleridge bio by John Charpentier entitled Coleridge: The Sublime Somnambulist).   At the end I was left feeling frustrated that only a very small portion of the story has been told, and superficially at that.

So, is it Booksexy?  It does have a certain something… like a guy with a great line but no substance.  Perfect for bars, in the art house lobby before the film starts & anyplace where you’re going to see and be seen.  Get caught reading it when the eye candy you asked out with no intention of going on a second date shows up.  It’ll make great  small talk while you decide whether or not you’ll be…  umm… reading in bed tonight.

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