To be honest, I’m thoroughly divided as to the sort of review I want to give The Somnambulist. On the one hand, despite some flaws, for most of the book, it was one of the most fun reads I’ve had in a while. On the other hand, the last 40 pages or so were just downright bad. I don’t mean simply disappointingly bad relative to the rest of the book, but off-the-rails, what-the-heck-happened, did- the-author-die-and-then-some-stranger-finish-the-book terrible kind of bad. Which leaves me with a dilemma. Do I recommend a book that closes out so disastrously? In the end, I’ll say yes, thinking that perhaps others won’t react quite so strongly to the ending as I did and also thinking, hey, they were warned. So hey, you were warned.
The positives of the book are many. It has an inventive plot and main character — Edward Moon, a Victorian London magician who solves mysteries with his stage accompanist — the eight-foot tall, mute, and seemingly inhuman title character The Somnambulist (the only name he is known by throughout the book). Moon hasn’t had a case for some time and the last one, it’s hinted at many times, did not end well.
He’s bored and aching for something to relieve the ennui as well as wash the taste of the previous case out of his mouth. That case arrives in the form of a wonderfully staged murder that opens the novel.
From there we’re pulled into an increasingly complex web of mystery, murder, and conspiracy involving secret government agencies, various human “freaks”, master assassins, corporate power, mystics communing with the dead, omniscient librarians, a man who seemingly is living life backwards, Samuel Coleridge’s poetry (and the poet himself), Moon’s first partner now mysteriously ensconced in prison, and the list goes on, all of it related to us by a clearly unreliable narrator whose true nature is not revealed for some time.
For the most part, and for most of the book, it all somehow works. Partly I think because so much is getting thrown into the mix that one revels in the sheer richness and audacity of what’s happening — the strange twists of plot, the odd characters, the literary allusions to Dickens and Holmes and Conrad and others. There’s always a nagging feeling at the back of the head. The man living backwards is interesting at first but never seems to really go anywhere and then seems to just fall apart. For a detective, Moon seems to do very little actual detecting. Some of the phrases are strikingly modern. The Victorian London setting seems strangely absent, more prop than active aspect. And characters and plot situations that began as sparks of ingenuity seem to stop well short of their potential. But again, despite these nagging thoughts, the book remains a fun ride of wonderful unpredictability, its positives outweighing its negatives through the first three-quarters. And then. Well. And then.
The bottom falls out. I don’t want to ruin the ending so I won’t be offering up any details. But it all just seems to careen out of control, almost literally. It was as if Barnes wrote up to a point then had a computer randomly finish the novel for him, given the set parameters of these particular characters being used and these particular settings. I don’t know how else to describe it. The revelation of the narrator is a complete surprise, and works as surprise, but it’s also a bit cheap in that I’m not sure the reader could ever have seen it coming and it offers up such detailed knowledge of thought and action that it’s hard to see how it truly works. The wonderful quirkiness of plot and character blows up into sheer farce and surreal absurdity and not in any good way. Plot points are thrown out, some resolved, some not, all with a sense of abruptness and half-polish. There are still some wonderful images in these last 40 pages, but they are not put to any good use — they stand there cleverly, reminders of what the author could do, but only highlight what he doesn’t do.
I can’t think of the last time I’ve been so befuddled by an ending. It was so detached from what had gone before that I couldn’t even get angry — it was like I stepped out of my original reading experience into someplace else. All I could do was wonder how I got there and how I’d lost my way. There was not confusion, no anger as I’ve said, just a big “why?” I can’t say I’m sorry I read the book as I truly did enjoy the vast majority of the experience. But part of me wishes I’d lost the book along the way and just came to my own conclusions about what eventually happened.
Recommended for its bulk, but fair warning to those who read it through to the end.