The Magazine

Show Freaks

A murder mystery in the Theater of Marvels.

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