Recent reports suggest that prescription somatic aids may cause sleep eating, sleep sexing, even sleep driving. But sleep conjuring? A fistful of Ambien could not effect such a feat. Yet first-time novelist Jonathan Barnes offers just such a scene, and it’s one of the more tenable inventions in his ingenious—if sometimes cloying—piece of Victorian pastiche, The Somnambulist. The slumberer of the title is a mute giant of a man who assists the hero, Edward Moon, in his magic acts and detective work.
The novel begins with Moon and his drowsy partner at the fag end of an illustrious career. As the 19th century fades, so does the public’s taste for the sorts of entertainments that Moon supplies. With his reputation falling—and a spot of arson at his theater—Moon agrees to assist the police in solving a pair of unlikely murders. He finds at their root a fiendish and far-reaching utopian plot. The proceedings are narrated by a slippery, multi-aliased character who chooses to “tone down my depictions in order to spare the delicate feelings of any ladies who may ill-advisedly be reading,” and who assures us, unconvincingly, “The great majority of what you have read is the absolute, unalloyed truth.”
Like many a first-time novelist—and quite a few gods—before him, Barnes proves more able at creating a world than at setting that world spinning. (Barnes’s includes human flies, sinister school prefects, a reanimated Coleridge, and a brothel catering to uniquely specialized tastes.) His originality outpaces his control—his resourcefulness doesn’t flag, nor does the narrative voice, but the plot overburdens itself and ends with dissatisfying abruptness; Barnes seems powerless to tie up all his loose ends, yet loath to let them dangle. He’s also occasionally careless: Characters in this era wouldn’t speak of “the chattering classes,” nor would a respectable newspaper of the day refer to a “ham actor.”
Yet in the face of his loopy enthusiasm, such censure seems persnickety. Barnes bestows much love upon his novel, so much should be forgiven him. The sign in front of Moon’s theater announces: “Be Astonished! Be Thrilled! Be Enlightened!” Barnes doesn’t always manage this—and certainly not all at once—but his novel often makes good on the advertisement.