No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

#28: Darkmans -- Nicola Barker

"I've often found that my most successful lies ... generally benefit from the addition of the odd loose screw. If all the facts add up, if everything feels too neat and pat, if all the elements fall too readily into place, then you automatically arouse suspicion, because life simply isn't like that. ... Put it this way, if the truth was a woman she'd be a whore. She'd be an extremely supple, highly sinuous, ridiculously wanton slut." (381-2)

I've been looking forward to reading Nicola Barker's Darkmans since it was shortlisted for the Booker and I read a sample chapter. Then I went through a reading-drought and the paperback (the thick paperback) sat on the shelf for months. Once I'd started, though, I found it hard to set the book aside for long.

The novel's plot spins out over just a few days, starting and ending in media res: we're dropped into the midst of dysfunctional family relations, illegal activities, historical research and a case of possession, or haunting, or psychiatric illness. Or all of the above.

Key characters include Kane, twenty-something slacker and dealer in illicit prescription drugs; his father Beede, an upstanding member of the community; chiropodist Elen, object of fascination to father and son; Elen's husband Dory, who has some very odd (and old-fashioned) ideas; their son Fleet, who's building an precise scale model of a medieval cathedral he's never seen; Kelly, Kane's chavvy ex-girlfriend, and her formidable mother; Gaffar, the Kurdish immigrant with a salad phobia who may be a devil-worshipper; Peta, forger and antique dealer ...

"This day just keeps on getting better," Kane mused, to no one in particular, "first ambushed by my dad, then blandished on my own sofa by a Goth nymphomaniac."
He returned to his paperback.

I am not even going to attempt to summarise the plot. "Just wait a while," says Beede very early on, "and everything will become clear. I promise." Yeah, right: though that promise is what kept me going ...

There is so much here, all woven -- all heaped -- together. Recurring images of jokers and jesters; the smell of burning; tiles falling or being thrown from a roof (and subsequently going astray); burn-scars; peacocks; the contrast of water and fire; sore feet. There's a thread to do with the evolution of language, and the way that written language can make something concrete or pin it down. Another thread about being forbidden, prohibitted from speaking. There are extravagant, humorously exaggerated metaphors: the beach road at Dungeness "slithered through the plain landscape like a contorted mamba searching for a nook in which to shed its skin". There are some truly nasty moments, mostly (though not all) off-stage: some, the building-blocks of the characters' lives, are dropped in well after the events or actions they explain.

As if I am the only one who feels history, who sees the storm of pure emotion raging away behind everything. The buzz and clash of the atom. This awful friction. This urge to truth. This urge to destruction.

Aspects of the plot are rooted in medieval history, with particular reference to Huizinga's wonderful The Waning of the Middle Ages and the medieval mindset, with all its symbolism and form -- and how the medieval mindset is reflected in modern life. (I've just noticed that the character who discusses medieval history -- and makes the remark quoted at the beginning of this review, about truth being a whore -- stands outside the story as a whole. She's like a Greek chorus. She might be the voice of the author. It'd be interesting to reread the novel with close attention to what she says, thinks, does.)

The page layout is eccentric, and sometimes seems illogical. (The book'd be much shorter if it was laid out more traditionally.) There are rather too many double-space breaks between paragraphs that don't need to be separated. Thoughts are parenthesised, italicised, given separate paragraphs. It took me a while to work out what this reminded me of, and I think it was the frequent italicisation in dialogue that made it click: it's like reading a comic graphic novel, short and snappy and full of emphasis.

It's also a very funny book, on multiple levels. There are farcical scenes and black humour, jokes that aren't funny (because out of context). There is the sly complicit humour of Gaffar's dialogue -- mostly in Turkish (indicated by a different font) with the occasional word in English -- which plays on the language barrier, with Gaffar's clever rudeness quite impenetrable to those around him.

I've avoided reviews of the novel -- I wanted to record my own reaction first -- but I'd bet good money that there's dissatisfaction with the ending. I liked it. It works. Listen:
Life's too short. Just enjoy the mystery. Take from the situation what you need. Be selective. Pick and mix. ... The truth is that there is no truth. Life is just a series of coincidences, accidents and random urges which we carefully forge -- for our own sick reasons -- into a convenient design.

And the funniest thing? While she's speaking, coincidences and accidents are rattling and multiplying and making sense of it all. There's hubris to Barker's mischief and it makes me very happy.

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