What I've been reading
Arthur & George by Julian Barnes. 2005, Alfred A. Knopf, 388 pages.
Julian Barnes is a favorite writer of mine, so I tore into Arthur & George eagerly when I reached it in my queue. Barnes does a very good job creating interesting characters and excellent dialogue, and this book is no exception. The fact that he uses real characters doesn't mean he stops doing that!
Yes, Arthur and George in the book are real people. What's interesting about the book is that Barnes simply begins writing what appears to be two discrete biographies, one of Arthur, the other of George. He rarely uses dates early on the book, but we understand that both men are living in Victorian England, even if the dates don't match up perfectly. Early on, we start to realize that there's something off about George. His father, the vicar in Great Wyrley, teaches him strict Anglican morality, and George becomes a shy but respectful and intelligent young man. The first sign that things are not well with his family is when George discovers a small crime and is suspected of it by the police. Then the family begins to receive threatening letters, and the police believe George himself is writing them. We learn why this is so when a policeman makes George tell him his last name, even though he already knows it. George answers "Edalji," which is a Parsi name. George's father immigrated to England from Bombay and married a Scottish woman, making George a "half-caste." From that point in the book, it becomes obvious that the cops are targeting George because they're racist. It's fascinating how Barnes builds up to this moment, mainly because George considered himself an Englishman and never believed he was being discriminated against because of his race. The threatening letters stop, and George becomes a solicitor, because his belief in English law is so strong that he thinks it will overcome ugly prejudice. Years later, someone begins slashing horses, usually bleeding them out, and George falls under suspicion. Despite his innocence, he is convicted and spends three years in prison (1903-06). He's released early, but only through the efforts of the other character in the book is his sentence overturned.
The other character, Arthur, is slowly revealed to be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and his story is also interesting, although different in many ways from George's. Obviously, Arthur becomes famous for his fictional detective, but Barnes does a nice job showing how trapped he became by Holmes, which leads to him "killing him off" in the 1890s. Of course, he could never escape the detective, so he brought him back, but Barnes makes sure we understand that Arthur is bound by his creation, just as he's bound by his marriage, which becomes a burden to him as his wife slowly - very slowly - dies of consumption and Arthur falls in love but never allows the affair to progress out of respect for his wife. The love story between Arthur and Jean Leckie is famous because of Conan Doyle's fame, and Barnes does a good job showing that Arthur is as trapped, in many ways, as George is. The joint biography begins to blend as Arthur learns about George's case and becomes incensed that English justice was so badly mishandled, and the similarities between the two men become more evident. It also allows Barnes to show their differences as well - Arthur is convinced that racism lies at the heart of the case, while George refuses to admit it; Arthur's new interest in spiritualism (which would influence the rest of his life) clashes first with George's Anglicanism and then his atheism (he loses faith over the years); Arthur is, despite his protestations, a true English gentleman, in that he believes in a muscular "Christianity" (he's not a Christian, but his spiritualism takes its place), while George remains introverted. The two men don't exactly become bosom buddies, but the relationship is an interesting one, with respect on both sides.
Barnes does a fine job with the detective work, as Arthur takes up George's case after he's released but not exonerated. This gives Barnes a chance to contrast the two men even more, as Arthur believes he can find all the answers to the case, because that's the English way! As he investigates, he comes up with answers, enough to get George's conviction overturned, but not enough to get the Home Office to compensate him for wrongful conviction. However, he believes he has found all the answers, but George understands that the world is not as cut and dried as Arthur, or his fictional detective, thinks it is. It's nicely done - Arthur always looks for scientific proof for everything (including the existence of spirits who communicate with the living), while George has come to understand that some parts of life remain unexplained. It's a nice contrast.
The Edalji case led to the establishment of a Court of Appeals in England, so it has a great deal of importance in English jurisprudence. Barnes ends his book with Arthur's death in 1930 (George died in 1953), which gives him a perfect opportunity to contrast the two men one more time. It's a fine novel, full of wonderful insight into how people live and why they believe the things they do, as well as a good yarn about a miscarriage of justice. It's a perfect example of why Barnes is such a good writer. He never goes bombastic on us, but the themes he explores speak to the heart of what it means to be human. That's pretty handy!
The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes. 2007, HarperCollins, 353 pages.
The other book I finished last week takes place during the same time as Arthur & George, but it's much more fantastical. The Somnambulist begins with a bizarre murder, as a man is lured into an anachronistic tower in one of London's slum neighborhoods and then falls out of a window at the top when a strange creature approaches him. When another man dies in the same way, the police call on Edward Moon, a illusionist of some fame in the past who now has a smaller following and a more cynical view of life. He is accompanied in his show by the title character, a mute giant whose big part in the act is taking swords through his body without bleeding. A police inspector wants Moon to take the case, but Moon resists for some time, until he realizes something very strange is going on, and only he can puzzle it out. He and the Somnambulist begin to investigate.
The story takes a while to get going, as it reads early on like a litany of odd supernatural clichés that the author finds cool. There's a weird brothel with unusual prostitutes, there's a group of gypsies, among whom hides a key to the mystery, and there's Moon and the Somnambulist themselves, conjurers who also solve crimes. Barnes eventually gets on the right track and the mystery itself takes off, but he takes a while to find his footing. If you haven't become inured to such clichés, the early parts of the book might work for you. As a comic book reader, however, the first 100 pages or so, while quite gripping, also had a "been-there-done-that" feel to them. But the book gets more interesting as it goes along.
Moon uncovers an insidious plot to, well, destroy London. I really can't go into it too much, because the plot is rather interesting and comes from an odd set of ideas which are fun to read about. Moon gets recruited by a shadowy government organization (aren't they all?), while he tries to get his semi-estranged sister to snoop around and find out what she can. As the plot thickens, new players show up, each more bizarre than the rest. Harker and Boon, for instance, are wonderfully depraved characters who show up late but have an important role to play. Moon meets Thomas Cribb, who lives backward through time and can never leave the city limits. Cribb tries to warn him of the impending disaster (he's not allowed to come right out and tell him what it is), but Moon often ignores him. Finally, the cataclysm arrives, and Barnes does a nice job with the resolution of the story, bringing together several plot threads rather logically.
The biggest problem with the book is that Barnes leaves several ancillary things unanswered. One could argue that such is the nature of life, where we pass by odd things but receive no answers because we have more important things to worry about. That's certainly true, but The Somnambulist bears little resemblance to real life. It's a penny dreadful, and while it's entertaining, Barnes manipulates the events so that they are completely unrealistic. So why does he leave us with so many unanswered questions? The title character, for instance, never sleepwalks, so why does he have the name? There's a hint of a different world that the Somnambulist inhabits, and it's actually an interesting idea, but it comes very late in the book and is developed not at all, so it seems pointless. Moon's career as a detective came to halt, people inform us, after an incident at Clapham. Barnes, however, never tells us what that incident was. Thomas Cribb speaks of "rules" about his presence, but he remains a secondary character, and we never understand why he's living backward or who set up the rules. Nor do we ever learn the significance of the bust of Lud, the first king of London, which is dug up by archaeologists at one point in the narrative. I get that this is a book with very little time or interest in character development, but Barnes breaks Chekhov's rule about showing a gun in the first act so often it becomes a bit annoying. One skein unexamined I could live with, but Barnes does it quite often, and it's vexing. I haven't read Barnes' latest novel, The Domino Men, but I hope he's sorted that writing tic out, because the main story of The Somnambulist is quite entertaining.
All right, I'll try to stop reading so much and blog more. But isn't reading fundamental?