Clive Barker,
Mister B. Gone
(HarperCollins, 2007)

This is a book about book burning, but that's where similarities to Fahrenheit 451 end.

Clive Barker's Mister B. Gone opens with a simple request: "Burn this book." The speaker is Jakabok Botch, a minor demon imprisoned within an antique book. He pleads with, threatens and cajoles his reader to end his misery. In the meantime, as his request is not immediately gratified, he begins to tell his tale of depravity and woe in medieval Europe. Just one question: does the name "Gutenberg" mean anything to you?

It's an intriguing setup, from its deviously unreliable narrator to its unorthodox treatment of Hell and morality. The hardcover looks beautifully antiquarian with its age spots, marbled endpapers, yellowed pages and ornate motifs. Kudos to the designer.

But as a whole, the text of Mister B. Gone is disjointed and disappointingly banal. The premise that Jakabok inhabits the book within your hands is easy to admire as a clever gimmick, but hard to believe -- even temporarily -- when Jakabok's addressee clearly already has his lines and decisions scripted out. Without a solid identification between you and the addressee whose soul is on the line, the book may be mildly entertaining, but it is neither suspenseful nor terrifying.

It certainly doesn't help that Jakabok has no obvious redeeming qualities. He's too openly immoral to be sympathetic, and too unsubtle to be seductive; instead, he comes across as immature and vaguely thuggish. Of the book's brief 250 pages, too many feature Jakabok repeating his request in various ways. The rest, as he points out himself, describe a number of loosely connected incidents in his life. Very loosely connected -- the climax is something of a non sequitur that Jakabok literally stumbles onto.

Too liberal with its history to be historical fiction, too grim to be fantasy and too comedic to be horror, Mister B. Gone defies categorization, but not in a good way. Jakabok's laconic, no-frills narration with its occasional crude humour seems almost appropriate to a younger audience, yet contains enough casual brutality and bloodshed that it is as almost as unsuitable for children as it is distasteful to adults.

There's no shortage of interesting material, particularly about the morality of agents of both Heaven and Hell, the vaguely Dante-esque Hell from which Jakabok hails, a new interpretation of a climactic event in human history. Had more time been spent developing these ideas -- and less on infanticide, patricide and homicide -- Mister B. Gone could have been a thought-provoking piece of entertainment. As it is, however, I suggest you don't burn this book: just set it back on its shelf and read something else.

review by
Jennifer Mo

16 February 2008

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