Thoughts on “Darkmans”
If Thomas Pynchon had a daughter who learned from his mistakes, that daughter would be Nicola Barker, author of Darkmans.
I don’t know quite how to describe it, except by recommending you put on some good headphones and blast Animal Collective’s “Fireworks” until your eardrums vibrate on their own. But before that, listen to an old, random song you don’t really like and will quickly forget, and afterwards you take a shower and put on a terry-cloth bathrobe and smoke a cigarette over Earl Grey tea.
But what’s it about? For once the cover blurb comes close:
Darkmans is a very modern book, set in Ashford [a ridiculously modern town], about two very old-fashioned subjects: love and jealousy. It’s also a book about invasion, obsession, displacement and possession, about comedy, art, prescription drugs and chiropody. And the main character? The past, which creeps up on the present and whispers something quite dark – quite unspeakable – into its ear.
A palmful of quarters and dimes to go with that: Barker’s prose layers banality on top of virtuosity on vernacular on OCD, emulsifies it with compassion, bakes it in a casserole dish of curiosity — and she’d probably forgive me for that sentence. She turns virtue into vice and vice versa, understands glue sniffers as well as scholars and could “unrapt a raptor,” in one memorable phrase. The book is 748 pages long and set in sans-serif.
Among the plot devices are demon birds and a man who fathers his own ancestor, but the surrealism is never for its own sake, and somehow exists in the same conceptual continuum as shopping mall expansions and contractors’ vendettas over phone book listings: they’re either equally sensible, or equally absurd, and in case are part of a larger story — the aforementioned emergence of the past, which doesn’t so much creep up as blast out like a stoppered sewer.
Darkmans‘ sense of past is twofold. The first is social. As England emerged from the Middle Ages, jesters were the only people permitted to communicate without sanction, and thus the ribald guardians of a truth outside authority. They were made irrelevant a by the maturation of the English language — a process that’s lately been called a linguistic saltation, making possible a culture of unprecedented complexity and freedom.
As language atrophies and society is consumed anew by icons, inarticulation and arbitrary justice, the jester is needed to make communication possible again — and this plays out in the second fold, the personal stage, an immediate past of failure and disappointment between father and son, husband and wife, that underlies the present and shouldn’t be concealed.
But jesters aren’t always nice.
And … enough said. Read it. Bonus points: one of the characters belongs to the Yazidi, a secretive Kurdish tribe that believes itself descended from Adam. No word on whether or they do in fact fear and loathe leafy green vegetables.