Thursday, 30 August 2007

Nicola Barker: Darkmans.

Darkmans begins with the apparently coincidental gathering of father, son, chiropodist and chiropodist’s narcoleptic husband in a café and -- there is no other word to do it justice -- explodes from there. It’s physically a heavy book, with bright white pages (the colour of mourning in China!) and death’s face grinning, almost consolingly, on the cover. If history is a sick joke, we are asked on the cover flap, then who is telling it? Nicola Barker -- and the book designers have gone along with her in this -- seems to be playing with the entire idea of what a story is. And it’s a big, sprawling, joyous, gaudy game. Life is brutal, manipulated by the brutally amusing court jester John Scogin whose interjections are confusing until you work out that’s what they are, then really quite brilliant. Lives of the characters are presented in minute detail but with such care expended over that minutia that you see how the small relates to the whole -- this isn’t a story about a single family or even about a family representing all families, this is a story about history itself.

It seems foolish to get into a description of what actually happens, other than to say it’s a bewildering and amusing mix of the trivial and the potentially life-shattering (only the children and the insane in the story itself seem to have a glimmer of understanding) so I thought I might join the game and throw a few adjectives at my screen and see if any stick. It’s insane, absurd, (a little long-winded, a bloated take on a bloated world? The physical size of characters is as apparent as the physical size of the book; from the bulimic, bone-breaking girl to her enormous mother to the diminutive Kurd who is given his own font so that, in his own eloquent language - none of the English is rendered as elegantly as his -- he can say exactly what he thinks, and we have the privilege of overhearing), it’s clever, crazy and very, very exhausting. Nicola Barker breaks every rule there is. In particular, dialogue is rarely said when they can wonder or demand or expand or observe or volunteer (these are all from one page! (564).

It seems sometimes that there are two ways of reading a book - going along for the ride, appreciating it, letting it go, or those who like to tease out its strands, work out what it all means. You can see something similar at an art gallery. Who are we to say that the person who stands and gapes wordlessly is feeling any less appreciation than the critic who investigates and describes? Art is, after all, art, to be appreciated as an aesthetic more than as an intellectual pursuit. Yet in terms of books like this, I struggle to stop myself constantly trying to work out what it all means. For instance, why was the cat strangled? There is a joker in scenes like this, and we aren’t given an answer. As if to compensate, I found myself inventing meaning in odd connections -- for example, a roof tile also features in The Secret River. The puzzle of what is actually happening makes it a far from simple read, although slowing down doesn’t make it any easier to work out. I’m quite pleased to report that I learned something -- after a year spent living with a phone number that used to belong to a chiropodist, I finally know what one is (it’s the same as a podiatrist). But I’m exhausted and I suspect Barker found Scogin attractive as a character because of a shared cruelty of imagination. They laugh together at our attempts to understand what the hell is going on, to impose meaning out of wonderful randomness. God, I hope it doesn’t win the Booker, because then I might feel obliged to read it again. But I loved it and wouldn’t be at all surprised.


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