It is one of the oldest tricks. Tell someone not to think or do something, and they’ll feel that extra nudge of rebellion willing them to do precisely the opposite. After hearing the narrator beg me in his infernal voice to ‘Burn this book,’ I surrendered, (albeit embarrassingly easy) to the author’s ability to convince me to read more. Of course, his protagonist doesn't appreciate it much, but the thought of being able to torture him just by indulging in his story is all too enticing.
Irrevocably, I was lured by the bait, and so found myself finishing this piece in two sittings alone.
Clive Barker’s Mister B. Goneis a gorgeously graphic and insightful piece of metafiction centered around Jakabok Botch, a demon who is rather low on the totem pole in Hell. After being fished out by a corrupt priest, we’re asked to either relish or suffer the narrative style of a lamenting, depraved, cowardly, mischievous, mostly malevolent but sometimes benign demon as he travels and survives 14th century Europe, a demon whose lack of direction and morals provides a surprisingly effective stage for us to reflect upon our own.
As long as Jakabok is lost and wandering, so are we as his readers, hanging onto both of his tails as he neither chases after nor desires any particular fulfillment other than survival. And yet, even in the dubious choices of a demon, the keenest listeners are able to divine some purpose underlying the nihilistic existence that Jakabok feels damned to pursue. Compounded by the strange nature of the story is the narrator’s method of speaking to us. Barker doesn’t just break the fourth wall. With Jakaobk, he shatters it, and then asks you to step into the story with him. From the first page, you begin a continuous dialogue with the demon. So as a reader, you’re not just an observer, you’re an active participant, guiding Jakabok’s temper and emotions simply by the very act of continuing to listen to his gruesome past, which in some instances, is a mercy for the narrator’s loneliness, and others, a torturous confession for him to endure.
Once the first page’s been cracked, the quick pace goes uninterrupted until its last, save for the occasional threats to have you destroy his manuscript. We’re thrown from one place to another as Jakabok tours Europe in search of inventions with potential to alter the course of history. Despite, (or perhaps even because) of this work’s peculiar style, Barker carves a rousing and distinct narrative with enough violence to keep the voyeur fascinated, and enough reflection to keep the philosopher questioning. Liberated by the morally unburdened perspective of a demon, Barker is able to poise questions about human nature that most authors are too timid to approach, the answers limited only by how comfortably we, ourselves, are able to digest Jakabok’s intriguing bursts of stream of consciousness.
Due to the similarities in length, pacing, and narration, I would call Mister B. Gone the possessed and hellish brother of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, only the protagonist isn’t an intolerable brat; he’s an amusing and (excuse the pun) devilishly witty companion who makes you laugh often enough, as long as you can pardon his periodic atrocities. In spite of his origins, the protagonist is depicted like any young adult first leaving home. Its a nerve-racking experience all too familiar, and even with the odd cast of characters, we can find his tale to be relatable. Jakaboks’ tale is a bildungsroman and Greek tragedy which Barker wove together incongruously.
Due to its individuality, the book comes with a few disclaimers if anyone’s to enjoy it. You can’t be nauseated by blood, you can’t be shy with Barker’s scathing observations of religious hypocrisy, and you certainly cannot be the person who reminds themselves ‘this isn’t real’ as they turn each page. Barker painfully stretches his hand out with this unwieldy style in an attempt to get you to suspend your disbelief so as to grant you a unique experience of speaking directly to someone who’s a murderer but not a psychopath, a lover but not a friend. Simply, a demon. For his repeated instances of speaking directly to the reader through Jakabok, Barker has been accused of using gimmickry to capture the attention of his readers with this piece. But with over thirteen books alone published before this one, we really have to ask ourselves. Is Barker forsaking his previous skill for a cheap trick, or is there something slightly more complex going on beneath the surface of his protagonist’s monologue to his readers? I believe that Barker was enjoying himself as he wrote this, but more than that, he was challenging himself in a style that he knew was difficult but daring, and one that would undoubtedly attract a smaller crowd of listeners.
So, if you aren’t able to disregard your doubts, the experience of Mister B. Gone does risk feeling gimmicky or even childish. But, give Barker the extra inch he’s asking for, and the piece is a short yet incredibly engaging read.
I think the causation of so many unsatisfied and confused readers is the mistake of taking themselves or the work too seriously. Many scathing reviews lacked any adequate criticism of Barker’s prose, but were so unnerved by the unusual method of deliverance that it caused them to disregard so many other attributes of the book. But part of what makes fiction enjoyable is the suspension of our own reality. We willingly let go of our world’s sharp edges so that we might enjoy a more varied perception of humanity through another lens, even if that means reading something with a setting and a narrator so otherworldly that it seems absurd. In this sense, the unusually violent and graphic depictions of Jakabok’s encounters aren’t unbelievable. To a demon, they’re only a consequence of his nature, and so his struggles with self-pity, his past, and his attempt to find ways to redeem himself are not only realistic, they’re grand, exaggerated reflections of ourselves.
Perhaps I’m too gullible, or stupid. Either way, it’s only ever a matter of taste. But if it’s worth anything, by the final pages, I found myself hoping for some kind of sequel, and I found myself wondering, perhaps the reason why so many people would feel uncomfortable with this book, is the thought that, deeply hidden in the recesses of our delusions, we’re all denying an inner demon a little less free, a little less colorful, a little less human than Clive Barker’s very own Jakabok Botch.