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Show Freaks

A murder mystery in the Theater of Marvels.

Oct 27, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 07 • By SHAWN MACOMBER
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The Somnambulist

by Jonathan Barnes

Morrow, 368 pp., $23.95

In "Wordplay," a Wes Craven-directed episode of the underappreciated 1980s Twilight Zone revival, a middle-aged medical supply salesman notices an inexplicable shift in the everyday vocabulary of those around him as he struggles to
pronounce (never mind actually sell!) new products. His wife begins to say "dinosaur" rather than "lunch." The "Fasten Seatbelt" light on his dashboard now reads "Fasten Stepdad." His boss begins calling him Tinge Thunder, not Bill Lowery.

"We've got the one thing only time can give you," a fellow old workhorse insists when Lowery begins to fray, "Mayonnaise." Soon Lowery is left leafing through a toddler's wordbook trying to make sense of it all.

Edward Moon, the past-his-prime magician-cum-private eye mucking his way through a Victorian London on the edge of apocalypse in this farcical supernatural mystery by Jonathan Barnes, could likely relate to the rapid-societal-change-can-induce-anxiety subtext of Tinge Thunder's quandary.

Moon spends his evenings working the stage at his Theater of Marvels, summoning live Galapagos tortoises out of thin air, exercising his considerable powers of telepathy on audience members (revealing, for example, to one shocked woman that her husband has been, of late, "engaged in intimate relations with a scullery maid") and thrusting swords through his assistant, the Somnambulist, a strange, superhuman figure standing "as silent and impassive as an uprooted Easter Island statue" as he accepts the blades with yawns and the comportment of "a bored commuter waiting for a train."

Speaking of ennui, this routine, difficult as it may be for those of us with less exotic workplace duties to believe, is as soul-stifling for Moon as cold calls to sell a sphygmomanometer are for Tinge Thunder. Moon is at the top of his game, yet his audience is disappearing faster than a rabbit crammed in a trick stovepipe hat. What's worse, the magician can relate: Moon is "chronically, terminally, dangerously bored." Although, to be fair, his housekeeper also snipes, "You get bored the way other men get the clap"--which is a bit of nastiness he's presumably been able to avoid despite frequenting a circus-sideshow brothel where the madam says things like, "The seal girl will be free in an hour. The pinhead's ready now."

If losing oneself in the warm, fuzzy embrace of a bearded lady is a sign of a man seeking a second act in life, then Edward Moon certainly is and, predictably, Jonathan Barnes is willing to provide one in the form of a rich widow who hires him to solve the murder of her husband. Moon is, well, over the moon at the request ("it was only with an enormous effort of will that he was able to stifle a grin"), and we soon learn that the magician once had a thriving side career as a detective, bringing tough cases with tabloid nicknames such as "The Adventure of Smugglers' Bay" and "The Crookback Incursion of Eighty-Eight" to successful conclusion until a tragic bungled investigation ruined his reputation and landed his last, unexpectedly demented/murderous assistant in the pokey.

It isn't quite clear, exactly, why a man with a super-attuned, supernatural deductive sense would get such personal satisfaction out of solving crimes. But Moon obviously savors the thought of the potential good publicity (which, perhaps, makes this a more modern tale than its setting suggests) and a return to the enviable place in high society his former renown once warranted.

Alas, there is no easy celebrity to be earned in the complicated, otherworldly probe that follows. Instead, we have a killer-prostitute who transmogrifies into a client's mother working in tandem with a giant scaled creature, a time-traveling informant cryptically hinting at a very bad future, undercover government agents disguised as Chinese manservants, giant killer demons dressed as little British schoolboys, and a crazed, cult-like group called the Church of the Summer Kingdom, backed by the "massively wealthy" corporation Love, Love, Love, and Love, plotting the violent overthrow of the civilized order while simultaneously reanimating Samuel Taylor Coleridge--organs from William Wordsworth, toes from Charles Lamb, a hand from Robert Southey--to lead the utopian commune society the poet once advocated building on the banks of the Susquehanna River.

And those oddities are but the tip of the crazy, sprawling iceberg. The Somnambulist rarely flags, even if Barnes's giddy exuberance for piling one imaginatively bizarre scene atop another can occasionally serve as an enemy of cohesiveness. (After all, when nothing is what it seems, cutting virtually any narrative corner becomes permissible.) Still, the emotional heart of Moon's journey could not be any clearer. He may prance self-assuredly into this milieu, but he stumbles out, tail between his legs, like Tinge Thunder, learning the hard way that, often as not, our talents grow frail and expire well before our trust in them.

The magician's prescience falls to his desire to be relevant again, and this misplaced hope for a return to former glory, paradoxically, ruins any chance of achieving it again. The secret language of the world he could once so easily intuit from the minds of men--and occasionally put to humiliating use for the entertainment of others--has become as foreign to him as "Fasten Stepdad."

Ironically, for a novel so giddy in execution, The Somnambulist is chock full of such self-defeatist yearning, from poor Coleridge, who awakens from what was advertised as an eternal slumber to learn his beloved utopian scheme has become justification for bloodlust and genocide, to the time-traveling informant saddled with the knowledge that there is no real place for him or his compatriots in the future London they are collectively attempting to save.

Later, when the narrator writes of his last glimpse of Edward Moon, he describes the broken man as "a little older, perhaps, greyer, with some of the swagger gone out of him, and some of his vanity, his preening self-confidence, satisfyingly punctured"--adding, "All in all, I thought it an improvement."

Shawn Macomber is a contributing editor to The American Spectator.