how to begin a book…

and – perhaps – how not to end it.

i give books 50-100 pages to hook me.  if i’m not invested by 100 pages, i’m not going to read the book.  i own too many to waste my time with a book that may not ever suit my fancy.

the somnambulist by jonathan barnes had me hooked by page 2.  here’s why:

Be warned.  This book has no literary merit whatsoever.  It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frequently ridiculous and willfully bizarre.  Needless to say, I doubt you’ll believe a word of it.

It is all true.  Every word of what follows actually happened, and I am merely the journalist, the humble Boswell, who has set it down.  You’ll have realised by now that I am new to this business of storytelling, that I lack the skill of an expert, that I am without any ability to enthral [sic] the reader, to beguile with narrative tricks or charm with sleight of hand.

One final thing, one final warning: in the spirit of fair play, I ought to admit that I shall have reason to tell you more than one direct lie.

What, then, should you believe?  How will you distinguish truth from fiction?

Naturally, I leave that to your discretion.

count me in!  it’s like the old brain-twister about the two men standing side-by-side, one claiming “i always tell the truth” and the other claiming “i always lie.”  which do you believe?

the narrator, through his self-awareness and -deprecation and his seemingly impossible omniscience, manages to portray both himself and god through his storytelling.  (just ask him.)

the story that unfolds is at once ridiculously fantastical and potentially plausible.  barnes creates a world in which outlandish characters and circumstances seem unquestioningly apropos.

my great problem – and, apparently, that of many others – is the ending of the book.  in the last few chapters, dei ex machina veritably fall from the sky without warning or precedent.

some reviewers have suggested that perhaps barnes got bored with the story or that his editor enforced an unreasonable deadline for the book. in an interview in 2008, barnes noted that he polished up the english edition for publication in the states.  had he been displeased with the ending, he surely could have “fixed” it for the american edition.

so… what gives?  could the peculiarity of the ending of the book be a reflection of an author that hasn’t navigated the landscape before heading out on his literary safari?  or, has he found a bizarrely appropriate way to unravel the sanity of his narrator?  after all, we were warned about the merits of the writing, the story and the characters by the narrator himself in the first two pages of the book.

[if anyone has read this book and has an opinion about the ending, i’d love to hear it.]


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