Until recently I had never heard of Daren King, but after reading an interview in one of the dailies, loopy titles such as Boxy an Star and Jim Giraffe drew my interest. Manual is King's fourth adult novel, after a foray into writing children's books — which seem as off-the-cuff and unconventional as his novels — and so far the only one I have read, but I am now keen to go backwards through his works.
His latest book centres on a couple, Michael and Patsy, who work in the fetish industry. At least that is what we are told they do; the book, narrated throughout by Michael, provides us with an introduction to their line of work in the beginning chapters, but they rarely follow the clients' requests. Instead they tie some of the clients up and sit around their house, eating packed lunches.
They happen to meet Edward one day, a successful, wealthy and married city businessman who becomes infatuated with Baby Girl, a 15-year-old who is into parties, drugs and hanging out with musicians. Edward desperately wants to be with Baby Girl so he pays Michael and Patsy to take care of her in his 'luxury studio in the City', which is convenient for them as they have been kicked out of their own flat and had everything taken away. Everything apart from their stuffed owl, called Owl, which they always seem to carry around, trying to feed it vole, its food of choice.
It is a distinctly odd element in an otherwise quite straightforward plot, but King's unconventional use of language makes this a compelling read. The prose in Manual is at times so minimalistic that it must have taken a great deal of work to come up with something that flows this well. The short, simple sentences are hypnotic and leave you with a pleasantly strange feeling.
The brief chapters are, bits of dialog aside, comprised entirely of simple statements and observations. Michael narrates the world around him with an almost childlike simplicity, not venturing beyond remarks like 'On the wall, a mirror. On the bar, bottles. In the bottles, liquid'. He also desperately wants to be like Edward; assured, wealthy and wearing a tailored suit, which is something Michael obsesses about.
After researching his earlier novels this seems typical of his work; Daren King writes bleak stories but with an underlying humour and touching humanity. Michael and Patsy are likeable characters in all their good intentions and naivety, trying to cope with everything around them. Thus, Manual is an accomplished piece of fiction that affects on many levels.