Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Darkmans by Nicola Barker

The world is waiting to see whether Mister Pip or On Chesil Beach wins the Man Booker Prize for 2007. These, apparently are the neck and neck favourites. I have read neither, but will read the former out of patriotism. I may never get to the latter.

I have managed to read two of the shortlisted novels - The Reluctant Fundamentalist and, as of last night, Darkmans. There will be those who hate Darkmans, for its lack of any sense of narrative momentum or, indeed, for the failure of the actual Darkmans to arrive in the text until page 836 (of 838) although there are intimations of his presence throughout.

As I was reading, I was struck by several passages which seemed to say something about the writer's method but I think this conversation, towards the end, between Peta (Borough - yes - it is a play on Peterborough) and Kane came closest: '
The truth' Peta informed him, baldly, 'is just a series of disparate ideas which briefly congeal and then slowly fall apart again...'
'No,' Kane shook his head, 'I'm not buying that. What's been going on feels really ... really coherent, as if everything's secretly hooking up into this extraordinary ... I dunno ... this extraordinary jigsaw, like there's a superior, guiding logic of some kind...'
'The truth,' Peta smiled, 'is that there is no truth. Life is just a series of coincidences, accidents and random urges which we carefully forge - for our own, sick reasons - into a convenient design. Everything is arbitrary. Only art exists to make the arbitrary congeal. Not memory or God or love, even. Only art. The truth is simply an idea, a structure which we employ - in very small doses - to render life bearable. It's just a convenient mechanism, Kane, that's all.'
So, if there is no coherence to life, no truth, then when one is writing a book which is true to life, that book need not be obsessed with being about anything, or follow any tidy plotted line - it can be vast and messy, exuberant, funny, have random elements, stories that go nowhere, just are; even characters that don't add much. I'd go so far to say that, despite there being lots of publicity about this novel having a medieval jester (John Scrogin) turn up in modern day Ashford, that's the most random element of them all. As I read the book, people would ask me what it was about, and I'd confess that it is about this fellow from the past (because that was what I'd been told) who hasn't actually shown up yet - this was when I was on page 200, then 300, then 400. I was getting a bit frustrated, to tell the truth.

It was when I gave up waiting on him to show up, started to see what else was happening, that I started to fall in love with this book. Despite its size, it is concerned with just a few days (however long it took between Kelly Broad's falling off the wall and her release from hospital). Let's start with her, as she's my favourite character. As her history has been written, she's from a very long line of no-hopers and thus she has no hope for herself: she refers to herself as a skank. But during the course of the novel, she starts to revise her opinion of herself, to see herself as gold. Two factors play a part: the history of John Scrogin, which may have been written by a fellow called Boarde who, thanks to the fluidity of the language, might have been an ancestor of Kelly: he fits the family legend of there having been a learned man who had written about buildings.

Second, when in hospital, she encounters a reverend: he has three visions, one of which concerns her brother waking from a coma, saying just "oh bollocks" and dying. She has heard from the nurse that this is what her brother had actually done, and so she has an epiphany, Kelly-style:
'Spot on!' she gasped. 'He swore - real loud - that's what the nurse said ... Man! Her eyes were now as bright and round as two new beach balls. 'Would you ever believe it?!'
The Reverend shrugged.
'High five,' Kelly volunteered, offering him her flattened palm.
'My arms are stuck,' the Reverend demurred, 'under the counterpane.'
'So fine,' Kelly beamed, chucking his pious cheek, instead, 'you win. Its a deal. Where do I sign up?'
'Sign up?'
The Reverend frowned.
'Yeah. You convinced me. You worked your magic. So how'd I join?'
'Join? Join what?'
'You, mate. The Church an' shit...'
'You want to join the Church?'
Kelly nodded.
'To follow God?'
Kelly nodded again.
'To dedicate your life to Jesus Christ?'
'Yeah. An' if you want my opinion,' she expanded airily, 'then fuck Ashford, mate, we wanna go to Africa, do some important work - help out all those little orphan kiddies with AIDS..."
She's the real deal, in terms of being a genuine convert, but there is an immediate clash of culture and personality between her exuberance and the rather stick-in-the-mud Reverend to the point he is later to be found hiding under a table to get away from her.

Then there are the Beedes, father ("Beede", "Daniel" or "Danny" depending upon who is talking) and son, Kane (Kelly was his girlfriend at one point). From the beginning it is established that they do not get on, that they have little to say to each other. Both, in their own ways, are really good guys (yes, Kane deals drugs but he is much more than that) but despite their living together, there is much tension between them - for historical reasons. Gradually, these reasons become clear, and have been present since Kane was a very young boy.

Then there is Beede's best mate Isidore or Dory, who has certain episodes. In one of the early chapters, he is bewildered to find himself astride a horse outside the French Connection - what passes for a posh cafe in Ashford. Not only does he have no idea how he got onto the horse, he hates them, would never in his right mind go anywhere near one. One explanation is that he is periodically inhabited by John Scrogin, the medieval jester, who is not a nice man. Another is that he is simply mad. Mind you, when he does a paternity test and finds out that his son is not just not his son, but his own ancestor by several generations, madness might be the right option. That son, Fleet, is able to make perfect match-stick reconstructions of 16th century cathedrals, without ever seeing them.

If I was asked what this book was about, in terms of plotline, I'd be tempted to say that it is a book about a man, Isidore who wants to have some repairs done to his house. He brings in Harvey Broad, a man with a huge grievance with he telephone book people: despite having three different firm names (such as Aardvark), his is not the first named builder. That honour goes to his arch-rival, Garry Spivey. Completely bonkers!

But the funny thing is, the author has all these threads running through the book, she lets a lot of them go but, right at the end, a lot get tied up quite nicely. Maybe Kelly is right after all, when she believes in the Reverned's visions and thinks that there is, in fact, a plan at work.

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