Turn-of-the-20th-century London is reimagined as a busily embattled hell on earth in Oxford graduate Barnes’s insistently eventful debut novel.
Shades of Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Kim Newman’s Dracula-inflected Victoriana surround the hectic plot, which is introduced by an unnamed narrator (whose identity, once revealed, may or may not surprise you) who warns that the story we’re about to read is sheer nonsense and that he is not to be trusted. How can the preempted reviewer compete? Perhaps by summarizing a hyperbolic narrative that opens with the savage murder of a wealthy dilettante-actor (the first of two similarly baffling crimes), followed by the introduction of blasé stage magician and defrocked detective Edward Moon and his assistant, the eponymous somnambulist, who’s eight feet tall, bald all over and a mute who communicates with Moon through amusingly misspelled messages written on a chalkboard. Symbolic suggested connections between the moon and sleep multiply, notably when a character known as “the Sleeper” enters the action. He has lots of company, including the wicked albino Skimpole (a nod to Dickens), a kind of reverse psychic (Cribb) who claims to be living his life backwards, amiable assassins Hawke and Boone and the activities of a secret government agency known as the Directorate, engaged in monitoring the machinations of a powerful law firm devoted to the creation of an anti-governmental “pantisocracy” (based on one of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s loonier notions). Barnes’s energetic prose is an efficient vehicle for presenting one outrageous character or situation after another. Alas, they are legion, and are only infrequently successfully integrated into the plot.
Racing through this daft melodrama is like topping off a slice of pecan pie with a chocolate pizza. It is fun going down, but chances are you’ll hate yourself in the morning.