May 6, 2008

Book review: "The Somnambulist," by Jonathan Barnes

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The Somnambulist, by Jonathan Barnes
The Somnambulist
By Jonathan Barnes
William Morrow / ISBN: 978-0-06-137538-5

Regular readers know that I am a big fan of the unique subgenre known as "steampunk," but might not know what exactly steampunk is; and similarly, regular readers also know that one of the issues often tackled here at CCLaP is the difference between so-called "genre" projects and so-called "mainstream" ones, but might not know what those differences are or why they matter. And since today's book under review brings up these topics yet again, I thought I would use it as an excuse to talk about them in greater detail, along with telling you about the book itself; because the book under question, see, is the inventive steampunk tale The Somnambulist, the high-profile debut novel of Times Literary Supplement critic Jonathan Barnes, a book destined to make you either squeal with Victorian fanboy delight or shudder with non-fan disgust. It's a great example of why genre novels are loved by fans of that genre and hated by everyone else, and why it can sometimes be so difficult as an "objective" critic to review such projects in the first place.

So what exactly is steampunk, to not put too fine a point on it? Well, it was originally an outgrowth of the "cyberpunk" movement in science-fiction in the 1980s, which is how it got its name; novels and stories and comics that were being written by these same cyberpunk authors and dealing with the same complex modern issues, but couched in the visual sumptuousness and rigid morality of the Victorian Age, which for practical purposes you can think of as roughly 1840 to 1900. And indeed, it is not too much of a stretch at all to reimagine current tech and ethical issues through the filter of that era; it was the height of the Industrial Age as well, after all, the era that saw the profession of science first come into its own, a half-century of human history that arguably saw as much rapid technological progress as we're seeing in our own times. In a world where dozens of things formerly thought of as magic were actually getting invented, standardized and ready for retail sales, of course it would make sense to set a semi-fantastical, semi-magical tale within such an environment; now imagine the exquisite detail and luxurious materials that went into such Victorian-Age contraptions, all that brass and wood and ivory and the like, and you can easily see why a contemporary author might want to set a modern-style tale in those years instead of our own.

And in fact Barnes' book teeters right on the edge of fantastical the entire time, a novel which could be argued is actually more magical realism than science-fiction; London at the turn of the 20th century, yes, but a London with secret magical archives in the basement of the British Library, a London with secret police departments guarding millennia-old mysteries from becoming public knowledge. It's within such a place that we meet the book's two main characters: a past-his-prime stage magician named Edward Moon who doubles as a notorious Holmes-style private investigator (in fact, Arthur Conan Doyle exists in The Somnambulist's London too, and is considered an untalented hack by our book's hero); and the eponymous "Somnambulist" in question, a hideous eight-foot-tall mute with no body hair, Moon's on-stage assistant and the focus of his most famous trick, able to be stabbed repeatedly with swords without ever being hurt, who refuses to drink anything else in his life but milk and of that 15 to 20 pints a day.

And of course it's this that gets us into one of the first big differences between genre work and so-called mainstream literature (or movies, or whatever); a genre project is full of whimsical little details that cater to that specific genre only, that will be loved by fans of that genre but despised by most others. Because let's face it, unless you naturally enjoy dainty little complicated half-magical whimsical elements in your adventure fiction, you are bound to go a little crazy trying to read The Somnambulist, and very quickly into the manuscript too; this is a book, after all, that features a whorehouse catering to circus-freak fetishes, a gentlemen's lounge for hideously disfigured war veterans, cadavers brought back to life Frankenstein-style, and a subterranean spy agency hidden in the back of an East End opium den, among lots of other details that have you either laughing or groaning even before you've finished this sentence. All genres have their little details that cater just to those who love the genre, which is why they're called genres in the first place -- crime fans have their brilliant serial killers, western fans have their stoic cowboys, and steampunk fans have their disfigured mad-scientist supervillains in tophats and overcoats. You either accept these details or you don't, which means you simply either accept such books as entertaining or you simply don't; that's a big sign of a project being a mainstream versus genre one, if its enjoyment does or doesn't rest solely on the details of a specific type of literature.

Because that's the other thing about The Somnambulist, that the storyline itself is very much a fast-paced, plot-heavy one, which brings me to about the biggest complaint I have; that many parts of the novel feel like Barnes imagining how the eventual big-budget Hollywood adaptation of that scene will look, instead of the scene directly servicing the storyline itself. And this again is a big difference between so-called genre projects and mainstream ones, that genre projects almost always concentrate more on painting striking mental images in their readers' heads, almost always favor plot more heavily than character since it's the details of a plot that most defines what type of genre it is. Because make no mistake, if you're a fan of steampunk, The Somnambulist is going to give you a boner; it's 350 pages of hansom-cab chases and obscure clues found on ancient gravestones, a giant conspiracy tale that of course features a famous poet from the 1700s, of course features a pagan society leaving little signs of itself all over the city, of course features grandiose evil lairs buried within the labyrinthine tunnels of London's tube system! Whew, oh, excuse me, I think I need to visit the bathroom for a few minutes!

Now, I'm quite aware that the above paragraph has a certain amount of you shaking your heads and rolling your eyes even as we speak, which of course is another sign of something being a genre project; it's the same reaction I have, for example, when someone says to me, "See, he solves crimes, but he's a phobia-obsessed recluse! Hah? Hah? Isn't that interesting?" Well, no, not to me, because I'm not a particularly big fan of crime fiction, just as others don't care for steampunk, romance, historical thrillers, or all those other shelf labels at your favorite corporate superstore. It doesn't mean they're necessarily bad books, which is where the difficulty lies for me as a critic; because how exactly do you describe a book that's great, but only great to that small segment of the population who naturally loves that genre in the first place? It's always the balance I'm trying to strike here, given that CCLaP concentrates on a higher percentage of genre novels than many other lit-oriented publications.

I guess, then, I'll say what I always say about such books; that steampunk fans are sure to love it, others not so much, that it's definitely worth taking a chance on if you're feeling adventurous, but ultimately you're not missing all that much if you're not. That's the ultimate beauty and curse of genre fiction, after all, is that when all is said and done, the projects tend to bleed into each other a lot in our collective memories; it's why genre books receive so much scorn from the general populace and so few awards, despite such books comprising the vast majority of ones published, bought and read in this country. The Somnambulist is very much like that, a book that's definitely enjoyable but that you will likely get mixed up with other steampunk books years later when recalling; that's not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly something you deserve to know before going into it.

Out of 10:
Story: 9.0
Characters: 7.2
Style: 8.4
Overall: 8.0, or 9.0 for steampunk fans

Read even more about The Somnambulist: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:07 PM, May 6, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |