Reviews of the Ephemeral

‘Disc-0’ by Russell Barker

In Novella on July 25, 2012 at 2:08 pm

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

Russell Barker initially completed what would become Disc-0 during NaNoWriMo 2008. Having set the novel aside for a couple of years, he has recently revised and self-published it. Unfortunately, although it has an interesting premise, the final product still ends up reading like a first draft. The story begins promisingly enough: ‘And there it was. The holy grail, a copy of The Roaring Parsnips’ one and only single on 12”. For years Danny Clutterbuck had dreamt of this moment and now he held it in his trembling hands.’ Despite supposedly being rare and commanding a high price on the collectors’ market, this vinyl is ultimately never anything more than a MacGuffin to propel the novel’s plot forward.

Although the narrative is kept humming along, its structure is not without problems. For starters, around a dozen characters is clearly too many to service within a novel that clocks in at under 130 pages, so character development tends to remain at the level of stereotype. The narrative also needs to set up the characters’ paths to cross, as their various stories slowly intertwine, thanks to the vinyl’s movements. This sort of narrative structure understandably calls for some suspension of disbelief (e.g. romantic comedies like Love Actually, Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve, or the globe-spanning coincidence of TV series Touch), but Barker seems unwillingly to trust his readers to appreciate the emerging connections on their own.

So instead, he repeatedly telegraphs them, e.g. ‘For now though their paths hadn’t crossed, so he struck out on his own.’ Later on, the underlying device is made even more explicit with a bit of clunky exposition:

So Barry and Danny sat mere feet away from each other having breakfast, neither realising the impact they were having, and going to have, on each other’s lives. They say that sometimes it is destiny and that you can almost run into that person many times before contact is made, changing your life forever. Whether it is a relationship, a business proposition, or merely a great friend, eventually it will happen, as it was bound to with Barry and Danny.

There are also further inconsistencies in the third-person narrative voice, as in the following passage: ‘He [Danny] got to know Ted a while before this though. It had been inevitable I suppose, what with Ted being the man with access to the records.’ Furthermore, chapters 24 and 25 are in the wrong order, reversing the novel’s chronology of events to no apparent purpose. There is also a moment of unwitting irony near the end of the novel, when Danny begins ‘to worry that he had walked into some schmaltzy film where everyone lived happily ever after. As Danny well knew, that was very rarely the case.’ The problem, of course, is that the whole novel has been playing out various stereotypes and narrative tropes all along, from clueless Danny and the but-they’re-not-gay jokes linked with petty criminal Pat and his two different partners, right down to the fake-out ending, which then devolves into a car chase in the city.

On the whole, Disc-0 could have been the interesting heist novel it clearly aspires towards, but it definitely needs more work to tighten up the storytelling. At times, I also found myself wondering why more was not made of the musical aspect of the plot given Barker’s own experience as a music reviewer, beyond surface details like the vinyl-as-MacGuffin and the brief glimpses into the musical backgrounds of some of the characters. Music does feature in the chapter titles, which are taken from a song lyric (a full list of sources is provided at the end for true audiophiles), typically making some sort of oblique or ironic comment on that chapter’s events. A fun little detail, but not quite enough to make up for the novel’s shortcomings.

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