Thursday, March 20, 2008

Black Humour

By Sunil K Poolani


Nicola Barker

Harper Perennial

Price: 495; Pages: 838

Phew! Honestly, ever since I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1,400 pages) and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (1,488 pages), I have never read a book as voluminous and equally tiresome as Darkmans. Like its above two brethrens, Darkmans cannot be read at one go — main reason for me to write this review so late — it has to be tasted in bits and pieces. That doesn’t mean the taste is altogether good; only in bits and parts. More of it later.

The raison d'ĂȘtre behind the book getting reviewed across the globe and, in the process getting sold despite its sheer shape, is because, you guessed it right, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2007.

Barker’s novels and stories have this quality: they are occupied by protagonists and characters who can’t stand each other. In the initial pages of Darkmans, a Kane gets irritated with Elen, a chiropodist. The reason? She hates the way he uses his mobile phone. This prompts him to believe that she lives without technology and chatter.

Then there is Daniel Beede and Kane is his drug-peddler son. Kane employs Gaffar, a Kurd who dislikes salad. Then comes Kelly Broad, who has a broken leg and is Kane’s ex-girlfriend; Gaffar wants to bed her. There’s Elen, Beede’s chiropodist and her husband, Dory, who is German. They have a son, Fleet, who is a child prodigy and a brat.

A woman called Peta Borough argues that modern life has become medieval. She connects the modern obsession with gratuitous consumption to medieval feasts and suggests that ‘courtly love’ literature is mirrored by the popularity of sequences such as Harry Potter and Star Wars. Barker’s character, predictably, believes the locus of change is language, with several plays on the way that text-speak and pop-culture references resemble the mutability of medieval spelling. Her interest in sociolinguistics has long been part of her fiction, but here this concern is central to the plot.

The hip, the square and the crazy trip over their pasts and each other in this boisterous latest from Barker, The primary focus of the novel, set in Ashford, England, near the Channel Tunnel, is on two families. Kane is a cool prescription-drug dealer. Beede is stuffy, civic-minded and pedantic; he supervises a hospital laundry. They tolerate each other warily; their one great crisis occurred when Kane’s mother (Beede’s divorced wife) died painfully after a botched suicide attempt. The other family consists of Dory, Elen, Fleet. Dory is a complete mess, narcoleptic and paranoid. He suffers dangerous episodes of which he has no memory. At times he is possessed by a medieval jester called John, who once burned down a barn with people inside. Tiny Fleet is weird, too (he knows about John).

The sane one is Elen, who radiates calm and commonsense. She’s a podiatrist who has treated Beede and Kane and is the link between the families. There is a third family, the Broads, a collection of lowlifes. Foremost among them is punk, anorexic Kelly; she has a big mouth but a good heart. The novel generates heat but no light. The hijinks (searching in a haunted forest for Dory, for example) are enhanced by playful typography and counter pointed by erudite riffs on, among other things, similarities between the medieval and modern worlds. The past weighs heavily, even on the Broads.

The questions pile up but go unanswered; projected climaxes (a rooftop encounter between Dory and John) fizzle out. As in her previous work, Barker is still seductive, idiosyncratic and infuriating.

Barker pursues many other interests, including chiropody, scratchcards, sex, dogs, gardening, religion, cars and class. Although her characters, on the whole, travel only small physical distances, they constantly make mental connections back and forth in time and space, living in fear of psychic forces that seem to lead to the “darkmans” of the title.

People come and go like you witness in Victoria Terminus, the narrative leads off in one direction before fizzing out and being, sometimes, resumed at a later point. There are ambiguous interjections in paragraphs — mostly just monosyllabic grunts and the whole prose is weighed down by a knowing overuse of clichĂ©, adverbs, and speech tags.

Darkmans, like many of Barker’s other works, is all about chatter. Her characters launch into aggressive conversation as they meet, and in their anger and frustration resemble characters from drama as much as literature, refugees from Mamet or Pinter. This chatter is amplified by Barker’s digressive, gossipy authorial voice, which prevents the reader from feeling any distance. There is a constant sense she might launch us into the mind of one of her psychotics and leave us there, and this gives her books a fearsome energy.

Buy Darkmans and read it if you have a 10-day vacation and nothing important to do.

Sahara Time

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