A useful new word (and concept) I learned from the internet is "griefing." Normally used to decribe a video game opponent who doesn't play fair, a real-world griefer is someone who plays nasty tricks on other people, to the point of ruin, humiliation, or death, in the guise of "humor." Recent noteworthy examples include a suburban mom who allegedly helped several teenagers invent a fake online persona they used to taunt a neighbor girl until she committed suicide. Then there's the person or persons known as the Filipino Monkey, who nearly started World War 3 by playing a little radio-prank on an American warship in the Straits of Hormuz. Ha ha.
While modern technology certainly makes it easy and convenient to sociopathically destroy your fellow man for your own amusement, griefing has existed for as long as humans have harbored resentment. Take, for example, John Scogin: a court jester so famous that books about his merry jests and pranks remained popular for hundreds of years after his death. Among his mirthful tricks was the time he lured the aggressive, unpleasant beggars of Oxford into a church by promising a feast, then set the church on fire. The malevolent "joker" Scogin is a spectral presence in Nicola Barker's huge and ambitious novel. He comes to represent another, even more famous trickster: the cloven-hooved one, the man downstairs, Beelzebub, the titular Darkmans itself.
So what does John Scogin have to do with the residents of modern-day Ashford, a dull English town of tract homes and theme restaurants at the end of the Channel Tunnel? Barker, in 838 pages, slowly and methodically lays it out for us. It appears that when the Chunnel was dug, large portions of Ashford's priceless history (buildings, antiques) were dug up, plowed under, or misplaced. Beede, armchair scholar and hospital laundry manager, spent years fighting for Ashford's past via petition and committee. But he was defeated. And he gave up. Or did he? He's clearly up to something. But what?
Beede's son Kane (note the character names, by the way) would love to know what the heck his boring old dad thinks he's doing. Kane, as a drug dealer who sells pills passed to him by one of his father's hospital laundry co-workers, knows more than a little about what a man looks like when he's hiding something. So he starts poking around. But everything he finds makes him even more confused. Why is Beede arranging secret meetings with Kane's vulgar, screechy ex-girlfriend Kelly? What's the relationship between Beede and his strangely alluring foot doctor Elen, and why do they spend so much time together? And why is he secretly studying this weird old manuscript, written in funny old-fashioned language, about some long-dead jester?
Elen's husband is a German man named Isidore. Dory (as he's known) has fallen victim to a worsening series of episodes he can't explain: forgetting who he is, abandoning his car on highway off-ramps, stealing horses, speaking archaic languages he never learned. Elen and Dory's little boy, Fleet, if anything, is even stranger. With the steely calm that is the hallmark of all Creepy Clairvoyant Kids, Fleet has built a huge, precise replica of an ancient cathedral he's never seen. And out of nowhere, he recounts, in hideous detail, the horrible jests of one John Scogin. And he has the same speaking-ancient-languages problem that his dad has. But he's only six: how could he know all this stuff? What the Devil is going on in Ashford?
This barely scratches the surface of Darkmans' incredibly intricate plot. Telling you any more would spoil it. Much of the fun is remaining befuddled and confused, shocked and surprised. Darkmans is the first 838-page novel that has ever seemed too short. Nicola Barker is clearly a graduate of the William Gaddis school of trusting your reader to be smart enough to puzzle out what's happening with minimal expository assistance.
The most hilarious and gloriously-written scene comes about 300 pages in, when Beede visits a neighbor with the intention of resigning from the chairmanship of the Ryan Monkeith Memorial Road Crossing Initiative, but ends up a guest at the most uncomfortable dinner party ever. In a dozen pages of verbal fencing, every weakness is probed, every buried resentment bubbles its way to the surface: "'Please forgive my wife,' Charlie told the table. 'She's taking antidepressants and they're making her a little...' he paused, speculatively, reaching for the perfect word '...irritating.'" It was this scene that started to make me think of Gaddis' doorstop of a masterpiece, The Recognitions, which contains a crucial, epic cocktail party dialogue scene. Late in Darkmans, a shadowy art forger appears, and all the pieces of the puzzle start falling together. It was at this point that I was sure Barker was making a deliberate tip of the hat to Gaddis: the major themes of The Recognitions, as in Darkmans, are father-son estrangement and the murky moral universe of forgery.
Nicola Barker is obviously a mad genius. But there was one aspect of the writing that began to drive me absolutely bonkers after the first 200 times she did it. Because every character in the novel is hiding something from someone, there is necessarily a lot of evasion in their speech. But every single character expresses it exactly the same way: by answering questions with questions. Like this:
"Are you planning on going to work?"
"Why wouldn't I be?"
or this, a couple hundred pages later, between two totally different people:
"Why? Why were you interested?"
"Why the hell shouldn't I be?"
And so on.
The best scenes are the few where Barker departs from the question-question-question-evasion format and does something more interesting: Like the dinner-party scene, which could be performed as a one-act play as written, or the monologues of Gaffar, a Turkish Kurd who switches between broken English and eloquent Turkish, indicated by changing typefaces.
It's not an "easy" read. But if you're hungry for something truly new and enormously ambitious, give it a shot. It helps if you have tackled some Pynchon or Gaddis in the past (Barker's book reads like a breezy novella compared to, say, Gravity's Rainbow). There's nothing this wild and big going on in American fiction at this moment, especially not by women. Whether that's a failure of our imaginations or our publishing industry, it's hard to tell. The conclusion of Darkmans came as a complete surprise to me. And yet, Barker had been setting up for it, dropping hints and clues the entire time. But I was still fooled, right up until the final pages. Now that's what I call a merry trick.