Sunday, April 23, 2017

Book Review + Author Interview: The City, Awake by duncan b. barlow

The City, Awake by duncan b. barlow

Paperback Published March 2017 by Stalking Horse Press

This review comes with it's fair share of bias. I have to explain how that works for me. When I like a person or artist I root for them to do well like anyone else. When that artist is a friend I have known for years it doesn't mean I will like everything they do. Duncan Barlow is someone I got to know through the hardcore scene. Some of his bands Guilt, By the Grace of God and especially Endpoint were huge parts of my teenage and young adult life. That is not to say he hasn't played on records that I didn't like. I am able to be critical, I say that so you can understand just how much I liked this book. I liked Duncan's first novel Supercell Anemia but I loved this novel.

In the 90's midwest hardcore scene shows were a little like mini-family reunions. Duncan was always someone I looked forward to seeing and chatting with when I saw one of his band's name on the flyer. He was one of the first people I talked to about my dreams to one day be a writer. We shared similar challenges with leaning disabilities. In my case I found my dyslexia to be crippling to my desire to write. I can point to one inspiring conversation with Duncan outside a show in my hometown that lead to me feeling that I had to pursue those dreams.

Thanks Duncan. OK so the novel...

The City, Awake is a early contender for my top ten reads of the year. It is very hard to talk about the book without spoilers in my opinion. The strengths come in the reveals and the inventiveness with which the author puts his cards on the table. So this review will have a spoiler warning at some point and then we will talk more openly after that.

The City, Awake is a genius surrealist noir that perfectly balances character, narrative drive and experimental prose. It opens with a note in a man's pocket. "You are David. You were made in God's image. You are the author of all language,emender of sins." After a few chapters we see David get the same note in other moments. Sometimes he excepts the note, but in one case he doesn't except insists that his name is Saul and through Saul we look into the mystery. in other tracks David is sometimes closer and further from the truth. Beyond that we see some traditional noir tropes.

Saul/ David hunts for clues in a city that is not clearly defined as real, and throughout the narrative we can never feel safe that we are in a real setting. Delightfully weird, The City, Awake is an experience. It has the effect of feeling like we are are being lead by expert. Very different types of books but it reminded me of the reading experience that I had reading Brian Evenson's The Warren. Read it, Read it!

****Spoilers ****

So one of the things that impressed me most about this novel was that I was fooled for 150 or so pages. The first chapter is numbered 7, the second is numbed 18, some chapters are numbered 23, and 30. When David wakes up at different points with the same note I assumed as I think most readers will that we have a lead with Amnesia. We do have a lead with memory issues, but those numbers were not time signatures as I thought they were. The Reader certainly should feel that way because Barlow is setting up a excellent twist. The numbers represent Doppelgangers number designation in a wider plot.

The slight of hand was well executed, perfectly fair and had me perfectly fooled. For this reason alone the novel is worth the money and effort. Well done.


I have known duncan for 27 years, since he was guitarist of one of my favorite bands Endpoint when we were both in high school. So I was excited to interview him for the review. I hope you enjoy. It is raw no editing, just a chat by old friends.

We talk about his novel the City Awake, writing and how we both struggled to adapt to dyslexia to become authors. 10 minutes spoiler free. From 10 minutes in to about 30 is about the book the last half hour is about general writing.

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