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Nicola Barker: Darkmans

“If history is a sick joke”, the inside cover of Nicola Barker’s Darkmans says, “then who exactly might be telling it, and why?” It goes on to ask if it’s John Scogin, a 15th Century court jester. Given that the book is set in contemporary Ashford, Kent, then you’d be hard pressed to accept such nonsense. Yet, substitute history for Darkmans in that question and you know who is responsible. But after 838 pages, why?

You’d think, by looking at its cover, that Nicola Barker’s Booker shortlisted novel was some sort of gothic tale: the skeletal figure, the bold text, the door hinges. What it is, however, is a light romp jumping between a cast of quirky characters as they go about their business and slowly become obsessed with history – and history is something sorely lacking in sterile Ashford. Unfortunately, while I don’t mind a quirky text, I don’t like quirky characters all that much. Ergo I didn’t find much joy in Darkmans.

Of the cast, there’s Daniel Beede and his drug-dealing son, Kane. Kane employs Gaffar, a Kurd with an irrational fear of salad. Then there’s Kelly Broad, a girl with a broken leg who is Kane’s ex-girlfriend for whom Gaffar has the hots. Back to Beede, and there’s Elen, his chiropodist and her husband, Isidore (or Dory, for short) who is German – or isn’t. Together they have a son, Fleet, a child prodigy and a spooky little brat. And in the background, haunting the text, is the notion that John Scogin may just be the architect of all the strange happenings intruding upon their lives.

People come and go, the narrative leads off in one direction before fizzing out and being (sometimes) resumed at a later point. There are ambiguous interjections in paragraphs Рmostly just monosyllabic grunts and the whole prose is weighed down by a knowing overuse of clich̩, adverbs, and speech tags:

“Did you get rid of it?” he asked.
She smiled, her eyes shining.
Kane rubbed at his own eyes. He felt a little stupid. He steadied himself.
“Beede’s had that verruca since I was a kid,” he said slowly. “It was pretty bad.”
“I believe it was very painful,” she said, still smiling (as if the memory of Beede’s pain was somehow delightful to her).
He coldly observed the smile –

Is she mocking him?
Is she mocking me?

– then he gradually collected his thoughts together. “Yes,” he said stiffly, “I have one in almost exactly the same place, but it’s never really…”
His words petered out.

The text is certainly playful and Barker seems to be having a lot of fun here, whether it be puns or pop culture references that will date the book (very much the point, to maintain its history thread); or in the more textual experiments, such as Gaffar’s spoken Turkish presented in a different font. It’s all highly readable but I couldn’t find myself breaking the shell of Darkmans to engage with what was going on – I never took an interest in the characters, never felt part of the action. While I allowed myself to be carried along to the end, I was bored by the greater percentage of the book which showcased Barker’s fondness for whimsy. There were occasions when the dialogue would head off in a direction that may give clues to the text itself, but as to what those clues reveal, I’m lost for ideas. My suspicion was that barker had taken historical events and rewritten them as mundane everyday happenings. But I’ll never truly know.

Being shortlisted for the Booker means that Darkmans will see more readers than may have been expected. I don’t think it’s a winner – it doesn’t make sense to award a book that doesn’t make sense. (Or perhaps, by that logic, it does.) Darkmans is a cryptic text where the meat behind it has been removed leaving over eight hundred pages of not much. With repeated readings perhaps it may give up its secrets but with frequently talk about history repeating itself and the weight of history pushing down on the modern day, I’m happy to relieve the pressure by not reading Darkmans again.

October 3, 2007

20 responses to Nicola Barker: Darkmans

  1. Angie said:

    Well done for finishing it!

    I was wondering if I should pick it up and try again… thanks for saving me the aggravation I would undoubtedly feel by page 300, 400, 500, 600, 700, and 800. And 838.

  2. jem said:

    I second Angie – well done on finishing the beast.

    I actually enjoyed it more than I expected to – but I’m finding it rather tricky to write a coherent review of it. I’m hoping a bit of time between the reading and the writing will offer some greater clarity – if not I’ll just have to go for it anyway.

  3. Titian Bee said:

    I just finished reading it – I got through the whole thing as I had to give a presentation on it but then I had to go online to try and find out what it was supposed to be about. I’ve read quite a few reviews about its symbolic genius and I felt like I must have missed the whole point of it (was there a point?) So relieved that there’s someone else who felt the same way. I still don’t know how I’m going to give any kind of summary of it that will make sense.

  4. Stewart said:

    I’m sure there was a point to it, Titian Bee, but Barker seems to have worked tirelessly to hide it in sequences of cryptic nothings. I know what you mean, though. Looking around I’ve seen loads of reviewers talk about how it’s a work of genius, etc. but not one of them has actually said why, although a couple have attempted.

  5. mark said:

    Regarding stewart’s post: please can you give the name or location of reviews which explains why it is a work of Genius. I am finding it quite funny, but I feel like I missing some significant that everyone else sees. I have since found out that is the third part of a trilogy about the London Gateway. I wonder if, because I’ve not read Wide Open and Behindlings.

  6. SM said:

    Bowl me down if I’m stating the obvious, but isn’t Darkmans:
    1) a comment on our disregard for our own past and culture -the idea that that which we try to repress or obliterate is likely not to simply disappear but to manifest in unpredictable and negative ways.
    2) our obsession with meaning and absolutes when in fact life is subjective, mutable and open to interpretation. The idea that neatly compartmentalising life, experience and our place in the world robs us of our own vitality and autonomy. It subjects us to the (not necessarily benevolent) control of others. Why are so many people desperate for the ultimately meaningless claptrap dished out by astrologers, clairvoyants, unscrupulous politicians and evangelical religious types?
    As Barker puts it at one point in the novel: “Star Wars…The Matrix…The Lord of the Rings…invented mythologies. We inhabit these worlds as though they are real. We respond to them intellectually although they aren’t remotely intelligent.”
    In our desperation for meaning and a rock to hold on to, we reject our immediate life experience in preference of something – sometimes anything – that can neatly answer all our questions and tuck us into a false sense of security and/or a projected sense of heroism.
    If Nicola Barker is a genius, its in her ability to shine a glaring light on our often illogical and sometimes dangerous craving for absolutes and explanations – the comments proceeding mine stand as stark testament to that. The point is there is no point. Life is not a series of frozen moments of time but a flourishing continuum like a running stream or a raging fire – ornately transient in nature.
    3) Recognising the past, accepting it and moving on, letting our lives weave up and out from it at all directions, yet still realising it is part of our individual and cultural fabric.
    4) and a whole lot of other stuff – some of it just for the heck of it. Because life is like that.
    btw – I’m not inclined to agree with Barker’s idea that modern and medieval life are the only periods in which people have succumbed to a craving for simplistic explanation and a manic search for meaning. The Renaissance saw the height of the obsession with witch hunts in Europe and its resulting carnage, which ran in the millions.

  7. Pamela said:

    The novel has a touch of comic genius, to be sure. But it also both arch, and sentimental: it questions the Oprah-psychobabble age (as most hip contemporary authors do), but also, when convenient, has its share of warm moments. For example: the father/son reconciliation (or near-reconciliation), the drug dealer who really just needed more attention from his dad. Barker wants it both ways.

  8. Stewart said:

    Hi, Pamela. At least you appear to have got more out of it than I think I ever would…even on rereading (which I’m never going to do). I just couldn’t get beyond how annoying the whole book was.

  9. occy said:

    the ‘answer’ you all seek is on page 824: “the truth 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, that’s all.” and then the rest of the conversation …

  10. Stewart said:

    Thanks, occy. I got rid of my copy last week, as it happens, so can’t look back over that passage. Your quote certainly answers some things for me, especially since it’s been so long and I look back on the book in bewilderment, and this paragraph comes fresh to me. Even with that help, I still doubt I’ll ever see the book as enjoyable – I think I was made to dislike it…from the start…after a very small dose.

  11. Mat Todd said:

    How nice to see a site where people aren’t falling over themselves with how great this book is. I read a lot, and am a huge fan of classic and contemporary fiction. Darkmans blows, and is the first book in a long time I regret reading. It needed only 200 pages to convey a very nice idea. It would have been great with all the endless pedestrian first-draft guff cut out of the middle. It felt like I was stuck in the company of some dull people and I couldn’t escape – they just kept on talking and talking and talking and oh my god. I don’t blame Nicola Barker at all. She can clearly write very well, and I am not an author. I blame the ecstatic critics who are obviously in love with her and can forgive her an unnecessary 600 pages or so.

  12. I’m glad Mat made this post — I haven’t seen Stewart’s review of this book and it offered a great chance to visit it. I share Stewart’s opinion. I read Darkmans to the end and was not really entranced by it. I do think that occy’s post explains the purpose of the book — and also why I ultimately found it not worthwhile. I can appreciate that some people may find “there is no truth” to be the motivation for a good book. I don’t. Having said that, I am glad that I struggled through the book and I don’t really fault the critics who raved over it. I just don’t agree with them.

  13. Stewart said:

    I think there’s a need to revisit Nicola Barker in shorter form, just to see if it’s me (well, us!) or her. Darkmans has really put me off ever wanting to do so.

  14. An interesting idea that I did try, Stewart. I was interested enough in Darkmans that I tried Behindlings to see if maybe Barker’s approach worked better in a different book. Alas, all the weakneses were there and perhaps even worse — and in the 150 pages I read before giving up there were none of the strengths. I can understand why some people are very keen on her (occy’s post offers an indication of what might delight some readers, although not me) and until I see something that would cause me to change my mind I’m just going to conclude that she is not my kind of writer.

  15. Rax said:

    Well thank goodness for that. I’ve ended up on this website because having finished Darkmans yesterday, I was looking around the internet trying to find out what it was actually about. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one!

  16. Bard said:

    Gads! I just finished this thing and am so relieved to be rid of this albatross around. So looking forward to opening my new Virginia Woolf. Short-listed for the Man Booker? Humorous? Great writing? Ha! This is why people don’t read anymore.

  17. Stewart said:

    Nicely said, Bard. Though, reading through the comments above, where I’ve said I’d never read Barker again, I was surprised to find myself recently doing the opposite. Having just finished one of her earlier novels I think I surprised myself by, dare I say it, warming to her style. Not sure I could ever do Darkmans again.

  18. Nick Gall said:

    I loved it, am currently rereading it for the fourth(?) time. It is alive, it crackles, from page to page you are swept along by humour which is then attacked from the flank by dread, unease and all sorts of skittish, playful blind alleys and cul de sacs. It perhaps does not make it easy for the reader but I genuinely enjoyed it.

  19. Stewart said:

    Fourth! That’s torture to me. Incidentally, I’ve read some Barker since and I do feel that I ‘got’ her this time. Though no amount of ‘getting’ her would send me through 800+ pages of her again.

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20 responses to Nicola Barker: Darkmans

  1. Angie said:

    Well done for finishing it!

    I was wondering if I should pick it up and try again… thanks for saving me the aggravation I would undoubtedly feel by page 300, 400, 500, 600, 700, and 800. And 838.

  2. jem said:

    I second Angie – well done on finishing the beast.

    I actually enjoyed it more than I expected to – but I’m finding it rather tricky to write a coherent review of it. I’m hoping a bit of time between the reading and the writing will offer some greater clarity – if not I’ll just have to go for it anyway.

  3. Titian Bee said:

    I just finished reading it – I got through the whole thing as I had to give a presentation on it but then I had to go online to try and find out what it was supposed to be about. I’ve read quite a few reviews about its symbolic genius and I felt like I must have missed the whole point of it (was there a point?) So relieved that there’s someone else who felt the same way. I still don’t know how I’m going to give any kind of summary of it that will make sense.

  4. Stewart said:

    I’m sure there was a point to it, Titian Bee, but Barker seems to have worked tirelessly to hide it in sequences of cryptic nothings. I know what you mean, though. Looking around I’ve seen loads of reviewers talk about how it’s a work of genius, etc. but not one of them has actually said why, although a couple have attempted.

  5. mark said:

    Regarding stewart’s post: please can you give the name or location of reviews which explains why it is a work of Genius. I am finding it quite funny, but I feel like I missing some significant that everyone else sees. I have since found out that is the third part of a trilogy about the London Gateway. I wonder if, because I’ve not read Wide Open and Behindlings.

  6. SM said:

    Bowl me down if I’m stating the obvious, but isn’t Darkmans:
    1) a comment on our disregard for our own past and culture -the idea that that which we try to repress or obliterate is likely not to simply disappear but to manifest in unpredictable and negative ways.
    2) our obsession with meaning and absolutes when in fact life is subjective, mutable and open to interpretation. The idea that neatly compartmentalising life, experience and our place in the world robs us of our own vitality and autonomy. It subjects us to the (not necessarily benevolent) control of others. Why are so many people desperate for the ultimately meaningless claptrap dished out by astrologers, clairvoyants, unscrupulous politicians and evangelical religious types?
    As Barker puts it at one point in the novel: “Star Wars…The Matrix…The Lord of the Rings…invented mythologies. We inhabit these worlds as though they are real. We respond to them intellectually although they aren’t remotely intelligent.”
    In our desperation for meaning and a rock to hold on to, we reject our immediate life experience in preference of something – sometimes anything – that can neatly answer all our questions and tuck us into a false sense of security and/or a projected sense of heroism.
    If Nicola Barker is a genius, its in her ability to shine a glaring light on our often illogical and sometimes dangerous craving for absolutes and explanations – the comments proceeding mine stand as stark testament to that. The point is there is no point. Life is not a series of frozen moments of time but a flourishing continuum like a running stream or a raging fire – ornately transient in nature.
    3) Recognising the past, accepting it and moving on, letting our lives weave up and out from it at all directions, yet still realising it is part of our individual and cultural fabric.
    4) and a whole lot of other stuff – some of it just for the heck of it. Because life is like that.
    btw – I’m not inclined to agree with Barker’s idea that modern and medieval life are the only periods in which people have succumbed to a craving for simplistic explanation and a manic search for meaning. The Renaissance saw the height of the obsession with witch hunts in Europe and its resulting carnage, which ran in the millions.

  7. Pamela said:

    The novel has a touch of comic genius, to be sure. But it also both arch, and sentimental: it questions the Oprah-psychobabble age (as most hip contemporary authors do), but also, when convenient, has its share of warm moments. For example: the father/son reconciliation (or near-reconciliation), the drug dealer who really just needed more attention from his dad. Barker wants it both ways.

  8. Stewart said:

    Hi, Pamela. At least you appear to have got more out of it than I think I ever would…even on rereading (which I’m never going to do). I just couldn’t get beyond how annoying the whole book was.

  9. occy said:

    the ‘answer’ you all seek is on page 824: “the truth 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, that’s all.” and then the rest of the conversation …

  10. Stewart said:

    Thanks, occy. I got rid of my copy last week, as it happens, so can’t look back over that passage. Your quote certainly answers some things for me, especially since it’s been so long and I look back on the book in bewilderment, and this paragraph comes fresh to me. Even with that help, I still doubt I’ll ever see the book as enjoyable – I think I was made to dislike it…from the start…after a very small dose.

  11. Mat Todd said:

    How nice to see a site where people aren’t falling over themselves with how great this book is. I read a lot, and am a huge fan of classic and contemporary fiction. Darkmans blows, and is the first book in a long time I regret reading. It needed only 200 pages to convey a very nice idea. It would have been great with all the endless pedestrian first-draft guff cut out of the middle. It felt like I was stuck in the company of some dull people and I couldn’t escape – they just kept on talking and talking and talking and oh my god. I don’t blame Nicola Barker at all. She can clearly write very well, and I am not an author. I blame the ecstatic critics who are obviously in love with her and can forgive her an unnecessary 600 pages or so.

  12. I’m glad Mat made this post — I haven’t seen Stewart’s review of this book and it offered a great chance to visit it. I share Stewart’s opinion. I read Darkmans to the end and was not really entranced by it. I do think that occy’s post explains the purpose of the book — and also why I ultimately found it not worthwhile. I can appreciate that some people may find “there is no truth” to be the motivation for a good book. I don’t. Having said that, I am glad that I struggled through the book and I don’t really fault the critics who raved over it. I just don’t agree with them.

  13. Stewart said:

    I think there’s a need to revisit Nicola Barker in shorter form, just to see if it’s me (well, us!) or her. Darkmans has really put me off ever wanting to do so.

  14. An interesting idea that I did try, Stewart. I was interested enough in Darkmans that I tried Behindlings to see if maybe Barker’s approach worked better in a different book. Alas, all the weakneses were there and perhaps even worse — and in the 150 pages I read before giving up there were none of the strengths. I can understand why some people are very keen on her (occy’s post offers an indication of what might delight some readers, although not me) and until I see something that would cause me to change my mind I’m just going to conclude that she is not my kind of writer.

  15. Rax said:

    Well thank goodness for that. I’ve ended up on this website because having finished Darkmans yesterday, I was looking around the internet trying to find out what it was actually about. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one!

  16. Bard said:

    Gads! I just finished this thing and am so relieved to be rid of this albatross around. So looking forward to opening my new Virginia Woolf. Short-listed for the Man Booker? Humorous? Great writing? Ha! This is why people don’t read anymore.

  17. Stewart said:

    Nicely said, Bard. Though, reading through the comments above, where I’ve said I’d never read Barker again, I was surprised to find myself recently doing the opposite. Having just finished one of her earlier novels I think I surprised myself by, dare I say it, warming to her style. Not sure I could ever do Darkmans again.

  18. Nick Gall said:

    I loved it, am currently rereading it for the fourth(?) time. It is alive, it crackles, from page to page you are swept along by humour which is then attacked from the flank by dread, unease and all sorts of skittish, playful blind alleys and cul de sacs. It perhaps does not make it easy for the reader but I genuinely enjoyed it.

  19. Stewart said:

    Fourth! That’s torture to me. Incidentally, I’ve read some Barker since and I do feel that I ‘got’ her this time. Though no amount of ‘getting’ her would send me through 800+ pages of her again.

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