Young Jonathan Barnes, a few years out of Oxford University and now a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, puts his reading to good use in "The Somnambulist."
Set in London around the turn of the previous century, Barnes' novel incorporates many of the weirder elements of 19th-century literature and thought. The ghosts of Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins and Mary Shelley dance merrily through, kicking up Victorian fascinations with the occult, utopias and Galvanism -- the belief that life might be created or restored through Frankensteinian electrical charges.
Brooding over this danse macabre are the persona and poetry of the great, long-dead poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose "eternal power" -- trust me -- lives on in the novel in more ways than one.
At the center of the story is Edward Moon, a magician who performs at the Theatre of Marvels and lives in the building's cellar with his faithful housekeeper and his stage partner, the Somnambulist, a more than 8-foot-tall giant who can't or chooses not to speak and drinks only milk. Moon is a prickly man with mysterious gifts whose once brilliant career has begun a gentle decline despite his well-publicized avocation of solving some of London's most sensational crimes.
When a man is discovered dead in the street from a fall from a high window, the police sense something more mysterious than suicide and ask Moon to look into the case. Moon's inquiries attract the attention of a shadowy government agency called the Directorate, which has reason to believe that there is a plot afoot to destroy London. Soon Moon is working both cases under coercive threats from the Directorate man, a frail albino named Skimpole.
Other characters with Dickensian names and freakish qualities pop up: Cribb, a man who seems to know all of London's past and future; Barabbas, the fiendish genius; Mrs. Puggsley, madam of a fetishistic brothel; Madame Innocenti, the medium; Boon and Hawker, a pair of savage murderers dressed in the blazers and short pants of public schoolboys.
In this gallery of grotesques, the Somnambulist himself remains a minor character, adding little to the novel but his name. But perhaps that is to be expected in a novel that tries so hard to confound expectations. After all, its narrator warns us on page 1 that the story is merely a bit of implausible nonsense with "no literary merit whatsoever."
These are apt self-criticisms, it turns out, for, despite some humorous moments, "The Somnambulist" is not half as clever as it pretends to be.