The Somnambulist, Jonathan Barnes

<em class="BookTitle">The Somnambulist</em>, Jonathan Barnes

Morrow, 2007, 353 pages, C$23.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-137538-5

Be warned. This review has no literary merit whatsoever. It is an ignorant piece of nonsense, nonsensical, incoherent, written by an unreliable scribbler, written in painfully inept prose, frequently erroneous and willfully ridiculous. Needless to say, I hope you won’t believe a word of it.

If I allow myself to appropriate Jonathan Barnes’ first paragraph of his debut novel The Somnambulist, it’s that I find myself in a curious position while attempting this review. I generally liked the novel, but trying to apply my usual reviewing mechanisms fails to illuminate why. Trying to classify it as fantasy is a slippery conceit leading to a discussion of “weird” fiction. And beyond it all, there’s the feeling that Barnes is laughing at every befuddled reader.

Even trying to give a feel for the novel’s atmosphere sends us grasping for dime novels, pulp fiction, Victorian grotesque, steampunk and other qualifiers that may or may not fit. We’re not the only one struggling against labels, because even the jacket blurb makes references to Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, Clive Barker… and Carl Hiaasen.

Yes, The Somnambulist is set in Victorian London. Yes, it features a detective/magician fighting against a city-threatening menace. Yes, it flies from strange plot points to even-stranger fantastic concoctions. Yes, it does feel as if a funny mystery writer had overdosed on steampunk fantasy.

Buy trying to give specific examples…

There’s the title character, for instance, a milk-guzzling hulk of a man (?) who doesn’t bleed when pierced by swords. There’s a house of ill-repute, favored by our protagonist, that specializes in ladies most often seen at a freak show. There’s a firm (called Love, Love, Love and Love) whose HR regime seems based on complete brainwashing. There are uncanny murder mysteries, time-regressing bit players, murderous fiends dressed in schoolboy outfits, a librarian who seems to understand everything (as all good librarians should, but even more so) and séances that, frankly, don’t seem particularly occult considering the rest of what this novel has to offer.

But if you’re expecting any explanation at all, well, you’re reading the wrong book.

So maybe you can come to understand the delight and bafflement of the ordinary reader confronting a novel such as The Somnambulist, designed according to the spaghetti-throwing school of writing in which as many strange strands are thrown on a blank wall in the hope that some will stick. But not all of them do, and it’s hard to avoid concluding that some editing would have avoided a big mess on the floor.

But when it comes to reading experiences, there’s no denying that The Somnambulist is unusual and rewarding. The shaky plot may or may not be a problem given the succession of rich details that novel has to offer. It’s not just stylish but atmospheric, and the odd mixture of influences will do much to endear the novel to readers looking for more of the New Weird mixture that has proven so elusive. It may of may not be New Weird (heck, does anyone actually care whether New Weird exists any more?), but it’s certainly weird, and feels new in all of its retro charm smacked around modern concerns. There are resonances here with Vandermeer and Mieville, although The Somnambulist more than stands on its own. Trying to classify it may give headache, but there’s no denying that the “Jonathan Barnes” sub-genre of fiction was launched with an intriguing first entry.

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