Saturday, December 17, 2016

Nicola Barker, Darkmans (2007)

"Darkmans" is apparently Elizabethan thieves' cant for "night," however much that helps. Not much, probably. I'll tell you, the description of this book made it sound kind of interesting, but I probably wouldn't have ended up reading it except for one key factor: it's eight hundred fifty pages long. I know it's not rational, but I have a strong tendency to fetishize sheer length in fiction. Not bloated, multi-volume fantasy and the like, but for individual novels, there's a real mystique. It probably has something to do with the way I was so fucking intellectually timid in my younger years, and would see such things as terrifying, insurmountable obstacles. Now, they're just good fun. True fact: if I'm browsing through books on amazon, and I see something that looks interesting, my interest level will jump ten-fold if I scroll down and see that the page numbers are closing in on four digits. I might even become interested in something that hadn't previously seemed appealing. Not--obviously--that shortness is a deal-breaker, or indeed that length has any relationship to quality. None of Angela Carter's novels are particularly long, after all. But when it comes to appealing to me, it helps! Naturally, sometimes these books turn out to be what critics accuse them of being--pointlessly over-extended and self-indulgent--but it's actually surprising how infrequently I come away with that impression. Mostly with pre-twentieth-century stuff, I think--Armadale, Emancipated Women, The Last Chronicle of Barset. Although you can consider the fact that I don't see Infinite Jest as excessive (even though it clearly is), and take my opinions for what they're worth.

But anyway! I don't think anyone would accuse Barker's novel of falling into that category, because in spite of its length, and being somewhat abstruse in places, it fairly flies by. Not having much of a conventional plot, it's a little hard to describe. It takes place in and around the southern English town of Ashford, and concerns a network of characters interconnected to varying degrees: Kane, a somewhat scuzzy but generally well-meaning drug dealer; Kelly, his defiantly low-class ex-girlfriend; Gaffar, a Kurdish immigrant who helps him out; Beede, his highly intellectual and socially conscious but emotionally blocked-off father; Dory, his Germanic friend prone to strange fits and inexplicable fugue states; his (Dory's) chiropodist wife Elen; their son Fleet, who is obsessively building a model of a medieval town out of matchsticks; and...those are the main ones, I think. Oh, and also, the malevolent spirit of Edward IV's court jester, John Scogin (a real person, I think, though online information about him not in the context of this novel is exiguous) is sort of lurking on the margins and ambiguously haunting, possessing, and otherwise influencing them.

And THAT is basically what it is. The biggest central conflict...thing involves Kane and Beede's relationship, which has been largely nonexistent following the death of the former's mother (and the latter's ex-wife) when Kane was a teenager. There is a LOT of conversation, much of it quite funny, as characters circle around one another. The whole Scogin business is mostly pretty understated and obscure (like something from John Crowley's Ægypt novels, maybe); it seems to play on similar themes as Faulker's the past is never dead, it isn't even past. It's well done. I liked it. Also, Barker really has a way with a simile, as in:

The unmentionable hung between them like a dank canal (overrun by weed and scattered with litter--the used condoms, the bent bicycle, the old pram.

Great, and even better in context.

Really, in spite of its length, and its occasional abstruseness, Darkmans moves along at a fair ol' clip. I found it mostly enthralling, though at the end of the day I have one sort of criticism that maybe isn't a criticism: in the end, this book kinda makes ya feel dumb. Or did me, anyway, and in ways I don't usually feel dumb. There are certain aspects of the story that I simply do not get after reading this, and it bothers me. Am I dumber than I thought, I wondered? I mean, I've read--and handled--plenty books that are a lot more difficult than this one, by any measure. So what's the deal? I think the deal is this: those books don't so much have mysteries where there is one definite, unambiguous right answer. There are a lot of moving parts here; now that I know which ones I'm meant to be focusing on, I'm sure I could reread it and a lot would be cleared up. But...though I did enjoy it, I don't know that I enjoyed it quite enough to do that--I mean, eight hundred fifty pages isn't nothing. Though I may read some of Barker's other novels at some point. At any rate, they're shorter.


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