I think this is at least partly why so many readers - print critics and bloggers alike - have expressed their opinion of it in terms of both glowing atonishment and sheepish confusion. It seems every review I read begins or ends: 'I'm not really sure what happened in Darkmans but I loved it...' or 'I'm not sure why but Darkmans is irresistable.' The other reason, of course, is that it is the epitome of creative unruliness and that there is something inexpressibly wonderful about it - an original and dark spirit that, while often tangible, swims in and out of your grasp like a (rather sizeable) eel.
I hope to God it wins the Booker Prize.
The plot, insofar as it exists, is virtually impossible to describe. The scene is Ashford, 'Borough of Opportunity' and 'Gateway to Europe' :
'...a town which had always - but especially in recent years - been a landmark of social and physical reinvention. Ashford was a through-town, an ancient turning pike (to Maidstone, to Hythe, to Faversham, to Romney, to Canterbury), a geographical plughole; a place of passing and fording...'
The main protagonists (if you could call them that) are Beede and Kane, a father and son - the former a hosptial laundry manager and the latter a drug-dealer - whose relationship is characterised by a chilly ambivalence; and Isidore, a British security guard pretending to be German and his wife Elen, a foot-loving chiropodist. Also in the mix is their disturbed son, Fleet, Kelly Broad, a delightfully naive 'chav', and Gaffar, a Kurdish immigrant with a pathological fear of salad (a phobia which verges on the Pratchett-eque).
What unfolds around and through them is an eccentric narrative of possession: the steady and terrifying encroachment of a malevolent old spirit on the present. In the beginning it all appears rather simple: Isidore suffers from a sort of amnesia-cum-narcolepsy and frequently 'wakes up' to find himself in odd and uncharacteristic situations. (In the opening scenes, Beede and Kane spot him riding a horse down a double carriage way, having abandoned his car in the middle of a roundabout.) During his 'lapses' he becomes unpredictable, even violent, and relies on yoga, breathing techniques and the friendship of Beede to moderate his behaviour. Meanwhile, his son - who shows all the symptoms of high-functioning autism - begins to call him 'John' and strange bruises appear on his wife's arms. We are given to understand - through Beede's increasingly bizarre researches into the problem - that he is bedevilled by the spirit of John Scogin, a court jester of Edward IV who was, by turns, an arsonist and a slap-stick comic, a murderer and a misogynist bully.
As the novel progresses and Isidore slips further and further from reality, other characters - Beede, Kane and Elen particularly - also begin to exhibit signs of Scogin's influence. Their bodies start to warp and change - Beede's shoulders hunch; Kane's feet narrow and twist - and their language becomes tainted by archaisms. They find themselves speaking when they shouldn't, and professing knowledge that isn't theirs. They wake up to find themselves bloody and scratched; they look in the mirror and find him looking back at them.
Really though, I feel that is an incredibly feeble synopsis (though I just spent nearly an hour writing it). Because Darkmans is so much more, and so much bigger, than I can readily summarise (and so it should be at 800 pages). Just last night I sat down with my Moleskine to make a list of all the themes and counterthemes I could think of, in preparation for writing this post. I scribbled four pages without a pause and could certainly have done four more given time to muse. All this wealth has the effect of rendering me speechless and is useless for blogging; good for a critical essay maybe but not for a readable review. I shall have to limit myself.
Ultimately, then, Darkmans is about history - linguistic, geographical and ideological. More particularly, it is about how the oil of the uncanny-past suffuses the everyday-present and lubricates our interactions and understandings. Not to mention how it elides and confuses them. For some of the novels' characters this is a horrifying thought. Isidore, for example, is terrified by history's ubiquitous presence:
'He'd dreamed of a clean slate, a new dawn. But he'd been wrong to dream -
- naive even.
Sometimes he'd find himself staring at the carpets, the walls and he'd see history. Right there. Starting up, unfolding, developing (Bad history, worse still...). And then, when he looked even closer, he'd distinguish yet another strand, another layer, underneath the 'new' facade. Embedded in the molecules. In the fabric of the building. In the... the stuff. Growing like a fungi. Spreading. Encroaching.'
Equally, it can be an obsession and a yoke. Beede has been a heritage activist, a campaigner against the Channel Tunnel and a passionate advocate for the protection of a local historic mill. He has finally resorted to taking it apart with his own own hands in order to save it:
'He now knew the internal mechanisms of that old mill as well as he knew the undulations of his own ribcage. He had crushed his face into its dirty crevices. He had filled his nails with its sawdust. He had pushed his ear up against the past and had sensed the ancient breath held within it. He had gripped the liver of history and felt it squelching in his hand -
For both men the past is awful, in the old sense of the word: so profound, inspiring and dangerous that it gradually manifests in their lives. Barker draws it as a solid shadow - very literally in the form of the 'Darkmans' itself, - an energy that underlies everything, changing it and mutating it so that its pattern shapes and controls what we become. She characterises it as Scogin, the jester (a choice that is fascinating in itself - the fool symbolises so much that is subversive and uncanny), while intimating that he is a kind of every-perversity. He is the eponymous Darkman but the pluralisation of the title suggests that although he is one, he is also many.
In any other novel this would have become a metaphor for something - the black secret abuses in a character's past - or the manifestation of some shared psychological disturbance. But part of Barker's appeal is the way that she subverts this expectation (and all our others), leaving it as it is: uncertain and entirely unnerving. What is Darkmans in the end? It is simply what it is - a rampage of the unknown.
And so, given all this transgressive creepiness, you might not expect it to be a funny novel, yet it is: hilarious and exuberant, full of one-liners and physical comedy (delivered most frequently by the side-splittingly poignant Broad family). The humour is often a function of the writing, which is a joy in itself, alive with linguistic tricks and unconstrained by form. Ali Smith, writing in the TLS about Barker, described it far better than I ever could:
'There is a playful immediacy, a swiftness and lightness of style and an almost Dadaist liberation here which shifts the writing to a new level and into a new and true originality. Plot, in fizzing, exploding pieces, is all surface, and dialogue, full of half words, forgotten syntax and unended phrases, is as messy as talk in real life. This is the sort of novel which changes things - transforms closed narrative into openness...'
Barker also has a gift for observation, for perfectly capturing the foibles of her players, be they middle or working class, male or female, English speakers or not. She uses language to pinion them as tight, even tighter, than a great satirical observer like Austen does, and she does it with such grace that the clean shape of it comes to you gradually. It is extroadinary the way she can write a book with such singular focus and yet such vagueness; it is a sleight of hand and eye that conceals great skill.
I believe it was dovegreyreader who described Darkmans as a great Victorian novel and I can see that - with its close study of Ashford and its socially varied cast, it is something akin to Middlemarch, and with its self-deprecating satire, it is related to Vanity Fair. But at the same time it is excruciatingly contemporary, dauntingly modern, so up-close to the present that it almost hurts. It is disconcerting to see the familiar writ so large and yet so bold in its strangeness.
I think Nicola Barker might actually be a genius.
But enough. I think it is probably one of those novels that you have to experience, intensely and in person. Just go and....