Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Bad Books

Which is worst, a bad song, a bad film or a bad book? Bad songs probably generate the most acute agony, but they last less than five minutes. Bad films last longer, but they tend not to be as persistently obnoxious and usually showcase an attractive female or two. Moreover, bad songs and bad films can become amusing in the right social setting. Bad books, however, provide hours of misery while reading, are an inherently solitary entertainment, and, given my felt obligation to finish any book of which I read more than 50 pages, nag and gnaw in between reading sessions. Bad books are the worst.

I read one this week, Jonathan Barnes's The Somnambulist, and it is surpassed only by Alice Walker's Meridian and Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code in the ranking of worst works read since graduating from high school. Unlike those atrocities, this novel opened with tremendous promise, presenting Edward Moon, a jaded magician in turn-of-the-century London, and his assistant, a mute, milk-binging giant called the Somnambulist, who together moonlight as detectives and investigate a series of bizarre murders. The cheeky tone set by the unidentified first person narrator effectively conveys Moon's growing ennui, and promises to relate even the most grotesque events with a bemused detachment. We meet a large and varied cast of characters, each of whom we expect to have a rich history and a crucial role to play in the unraveling of some grand conspiracy.

Sadly, it is not the conspiracy but the novel that quickly unravels, as Moon's investigations repeatedly reach dead ends and we learn nothing new about these characters. Eventually and almost by accident, Moon identifies the murdering culprits and learns that virtually every previous clue was a red herring. Most members of that fascinating cast of characters trail off with nothing interesting to do, and the final resolution rides on a series of coincidences. The titular character, whose sleeping habits are quite ordinary, remains a disposable curiosity with no significance in action or symbolism. In a story such as this, the reader expects the various threads to come together to form a precise tapestry - here the threads are cut short or haphazardly tangled.

About 4/5 of the way through the novel, we learn that the narrator is himself the head of the organization that carried out the murders, and therefore that much of what he has told us is unreliable. This is as cheap and insulting a gimmick as I can imagine, a cover for any inconsistencies that might arise and for the general formlessness of the thing. I suppose Barnes might think he's pulling some Pynchonian satire of the search for order and underlying forces, but he has none of Pynchon's good humor, and if this is his goal, comes off more as a con artist than a satirist. The Somnambulist was the Cincinnati Public Library's Book of the Month for July - I have no idea what possessed anyone to select this mess.


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