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Duncan Barlow’s The City, Awake: A Noir Palimpsest

By Brian Birnbaum.

The City, Awake (Stalking Horse Press, 2016)

The noir novel drops us into a world whose contours we know well: an urban sprawl of violence and sex and caustic pith, with a mystery (a murder, usually) at its center. At the level of logic—the how and the why of its wanton, crime-ridden ways—the noir world simply is. For the reader it must remain this way, through a suspension of disbelief, as her immersion in the narrative depends on not calling it into question.

Initially, The City, Awake appears to be no exception to this rule; this gothic noir presumes its dystopic city and motivates only the particulars of the plot that unfurls within it. In fact, though, over the course of the novel Duncan Barlow subtly manages to overwrite these rules with those of his own devising—and with great profit.

City begins with a series of lookalikes awakening in the same hotel room. Distinguishing between these counterparts is (naturally) difficult at first, until one realizes that Barlow’s numbering of the book’s chapters holds the key. Rather than proceeding sequentially, chapter numbers work to distinguish between counterparts: 7, 23, 29, 30, and 18 are the only numbers used throughout the novel to label its sections, each indicating which characters’ perspective we’re in; and we might use Duncan’s numbering system to distinguish the characters thus: David 7, David 23, David 29, David 30, and David 18, who early on decides that ‘Saul’ better suits him.

All five of these lookalikes awake carrying the same note in their pockets: “You are David. You were made in God’s image. You are the author of all language, emender of sins.” Absent any memories, the men nevertheless find themselves full of knowledge; without recollecting the how or why of their being, they are able to attach words to the things they see, as well as to the abstractions that cross their minds.

From the hotel room, they all follow a similar routine, as though preordained: they find a matchbook from a local bar, Smathers’, to which each makes their way. Thereafter the counterparts’ stories wobble off onto distinct yet similar paths.

All of the Davids sans Saul meet a Mr. Erelim, who either confirms their faith in God and uses them as minions working toward His will (Davids 23 and 30), or disowns them (Davids 7 and 29). Precisely who Erelim’s “God” and “His will” is, we don’t yet know.

Saul, for his part, is intercepted at Smathers’ door by a chameleon-haired woman called Merav, your femme fatale with an orange twist. Merav brings Saul to her boss, Mr. Uriah, an elderly invalid attached to insidious-seeming medical technologies (“a series of compressors, wire and metal”) that maintain his tenuous link to life. Uriah tells Saul he’s an apostate of the Council of the New Mystical Body, an alternative Catholic sect. As a younger man, he’d been the Council’s top representative, boasting of a connection to God so profound that he would fall into fits and seizures, speak in tongues, even have visions. Ultimately, he was found to have a brain tumor, the true cause of his episodes. He lost his faith soon thereafter. Saul’s response to Uriah’s tale is simply that “no god masters” him, which seems only to confirm that Uriah and Merav have “found their man.” As for Saul’s fate, Uriah reveals only this: “Names I can’t give you, for I don’t know them, but you’ll know when to fire when you see yourself.”

Erelim and Uriah, the two opposing puppetmasters, aren’t forthcoming about their designs, other than Erelim’s devotion to the Council, Uriah’s defection from such, and their seeking to thwart one another. Though the orders they give ostensibly flow from antithetical viewpoints, they are in practice nearly identical: to track the movements of the opposition. Thus closed is the city’s circuit of lookalikes, Saul on one side and the Davids on the other, surveilling each other’s movements. Our only certainty is that violence must follow.

Indeed, the plot’s pixilation is slow to resolve into anything like high definition. It isn’t until roughly a quarter of the way through this slim novel that we gather the first clue of true significance: instinct leads Saul back to the upturned hotel room of his waking, where he finds a conspicuous card with religious demarcations. Needing to decode it, he ventures an alliance within the city’s church—specifically, with Father Tentorio, the first man in whom Saul stakes his trust.

Tentorio identifies the deity on Saul’s card as Rogziel, the angel of wrath, and links the card to the Council, a “heretical group” dating back to the Middle Ages that “believed that there were parts of the Bible removed for the sake of securing Papal power, ” including passages about the more “aggressive angels.” The Church, Tentorio says, moved to excommunicate the Council to avoid the “violent and wrathful ideology of those priests.”

With Erelim established as the Council’s wrathful steward, and Uriah his redemptive adversary, Saul is still left in the dark: suspicious, confused, certain only of his presence, of being awake, and little else. He finds his purpose both meaningless and immediate, hopeless yet necessary, as the question of survival shrouds a deeper, more singular imperative yet to be realized. Without any memory to rely on, and allotted but crumbs of intel by Uriah, he carries out reconnaissance with strabismic eyes darting in any direction from which danger might arise. His wavering states of awareness and loyalty leave him as likely to turn on Uriah and Merav as to strike at his prescribed foe.

The Davids take a different course. 23 turns vagrant, rebelling against the instinct he was bequeathed by his creator, Erelim. He sleeps in cardboard hovels erected in alleyways, using newspaper for blankets. He has dreams of his genesis in which men like him, lookalikes, lie prone in serried bathtubs filled with gelatinous fluid, attached to a network of tubes, and we surmise that Erelim is cloning from the amniotic fluids of “God” his army of “angels.” David 23 fights his violent instincts, which manifest as disembodied voices and visions of critters crawling from beneath his skin. Sometimes this leads to self-mutilation as he attempts to uproot the creatures; other times, he simply repeats to himself that none of this is real. Increasingly, he becomes aware of what he’s been created to do, what he is trying to stave off so desperately: the instinct to kill.

Meanwhile, David 30 is utterly unfettered by this “God-given” instinct; in fact he seems propelled by it. Unquestioningly loyal to Erelim’s orders, he bears down on Saul, leaving a river of blood in his wake. Drawing closer to Saul, Merav, and Uriah, he offs, among others, a cab driver blowing up his stakeout and a pestering street urchin, each murder as much in service to his immanent need to spill blood as to Erelim and his occult aims.

This waltz to the rhythm of factional surveillance continues with little additional broad-arc backstory and plotting, until we near the novel’s climax; whereupon, finally, we learn of Uriah’s chess-like use of Saul’s instinct to kill against Erelim and his minions. This isn’t to say City lacks for narrative tension. Saul’s relationship with Tentorio and David 23’s encounter with a gypsy busker provide a themed roadmap, pushing forth the story while scudding past the motifs that make up the novel’s thesis, which perhaps is delivered most pithily by Tentorio: “Son, one should never trust a man who tells him what to believe.”

It is from this combination of predictably grim mise en scène and metaphysical mystery that Barlow synthesizes the book’s central achievement. More than the noir’s sprawl of violence/sex/pith, the reader begins to form a complex intuition about the logical underpinnings of something far deeper than plot and mystery—namely, about human agency and purpose, its paradoxes and limits, for both the characters in the book and its readers too.

Over the noir genre’s paradigm of predictable violence and inscrutable crime, Barlow superimposes a set of characters who seem equipped with experiential knowledge yet who are unable to deduce, a posteriori, the cause and origin of what they know and feel; they are left to determine their life’s purpose solely from untethered instinct. Is this, though, so far from the general human predicament?

Standard noir genre tropes absolve Barlow of having to explain certain absurdities, such as the string of murders left so blatantly unsolved, while simultaneously opening the door to a metaphysical laboratory. And contrary to such films as Brick or Memento, he’s able to utilize the technology of the novel, the written word, to unleash hard-boiled beauties such as this: “He stood quietly and waited…Patience, after all, was a virtue. When the novelty of his virtue began to wear thin, David rang the bell.” There are also more tender rhythms here, linguistic delicacies between the edgy noirisms, from which a very different novel might have been built: “The man behind him spoke a language that seemed to manifest only in his dreams. Sharp and angular. A language unfriendly to song.”

Though Barlow’s narrative fog is slow to lift, these lurid strobes of language light it up. Perhaps this is best expressed by the author himself, when he writes, “He was looking past him to some space that only Jonathan could see, a thought metastasizing in the smoke.”

Still, even more experimentally minded readers might find it more of a struggle to see than it ought to be. The reader’s instincts and intuitions are relied on a bit too much. Ultimately, though, whatever stumbles there are in City are only stray boughs fallen across a rigorously paved ontological path. Without some courting of obscurity—which admittedly furrows the brow almost continuously here—the novel would have been diminished in power from a thematic point of view. It also would have negated some of the readerly pleasure to be had in parsing Barlow’s distinctive novelistic logic.

Indeed, perhaps more than any character in the novel, it is the reader’s mettle that Barlow wants to test. His ingenious tale will amply reward those who pass.


Brian Birnbaum received his MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. He’s been working on his novel, Emerald City, for nearly four years, from which he had an excerpt published in Potluck Mag. In addition to the Trumpet reading series at KGB Bar, he’s read alongside Sergio De La Pava at the Dead Rabbits reading series. He lives in Sugar Hill, Harlem.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, March 27th, 2017.