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Land of Nod

In the past week I’ve read three books, each of which focuses on a different problem. In Laura van den Berg’s Find Me, the problem is memory. In Chester Brown’s Ed the Happy Clown, the problem is Ronald Reagan’s head grafted onto a penis. In Adrian Barnes’s Nod, the problem is sleeplessness. Two of these problems are big concerns of mine.

I wrote about sleeplessness for this blog (here and here) a year and a half ago, after the publication of Karen Russell’s Sleep Donation. Russell conjures a world overtaken by an “insomnia emergency,” a world in which the young are utilized as “sleep donors.” Barnes imagines something similar—though the details are bloodier and the death count is higher. Nod was published in the UK in 2012, but a North American edition didn’t appear until this past September. I learned about the novel by reading an entry by Dan Kois on Slate’s Drift Blog (“A Blog about Sleep”). Kois interviewed Barnes—though I didn’t remember the interview. (Until now, that is.) I did remember him calling Nod “the creepiest book I’ve read this year.”

The creepiness sets in early: Barnes begins the action on Day 18 of the sleeplessness plague. “It was getting harder and harder,” his narrator Paul reports, “to tell the living from the dead.” Paul is a writer in Vancouver; he’s also one of the rare (maybe one in 10,000) people on the planet still able to sleep. The story then rewinds a bit, but the horrors keep multiplying. After one particularly lurid battle among the barely-surviving Vancouverites, Paul writes: “That was the moment when Hieronymus Bosch came into sharp focus for me as a steely-eyed realist.”

(As bad off as Vancouver is, Seattle may be worse: it’s been nuked. What a year for Seattle! First the Super Bowl disaster, then Kathryn Schulz’s earthquake forecast, and now this.)

Barnes’s prose is full of surprising figures and flourishes. About a savage woman named Gytrash whose mouth has been taped shut but who keeps speaking anyway (“Juggle … leaves … stop … shining … wave … stop”), Paul writes, “It was like an emergency broadcast from a group of hysterical Fridge Magnet poets.” When Paul laughs with a soon-to-be-dead lieutenant on a beached aircraft carrier, it feels “like a wake for laughter.” When we encounter Gytrash again, her smile is described as

a crude mimicry of care and grandma-welcome. The mouth that framed that ghastly smile was a black hole of greeting, stretched open so wide that her eyes were reduced to glittering pinpricks. She was a witch, just as surely as the creatures on the beach a few nights earlier had been scorpions and crows.

Here’s a longer passage, in which Paul pauses to think about his lost lover Tanya:

True story. One New Year’s Eve a couple of years ago, she drank far, far too much, then spent the hours between midnight and dawn vomiting repeatedly, anywhere and everywhere. She puked in the same way heavy smokers clear their throats, casually, unconsciously. I spent those hours following her around with a bucket, holding her hair back, and listening to her laugh and cry, laugh and cry. She giggled about a conversation she’d had with a friend earlier that evening, then grew angry about it, then wept. Swampwatered all over the place. Shook her head fiercely whenever I tried to utter some inept words of commiseration.

“Don’t talk. Just don’t,” she warned every time I opened my mouth. I remember feeling as though, robbed of my words, I had nothing else to offer. Still, all in all a tender memory. If you’ve ever loved somebody besides yourself that won’t surprise you too much.

Memory. The other big concern. When I reread Kois’s interview with Barnes, I was stunned to discover that I had forgotten its ending:

Kois: You’ve said you had the idea for Nod because you yourself are an insomniac. How does that affect your life?

Barnes: Sleeplessness shows me more reality, odd though that sounds. I remember snow coming down late at night when I was 8 years old and couldn’t sleep. I’d be standing on my bed and watching flakes fall slowly late at night. Eventually, of course, my mom would check on me and say, “Go to sleep!” And other times, she’d say, “Wake up!” I began to wonder about the world my parents claimed to be real.

More recently, I was found to have a really deadly cancer. It grows and spreads in my skull—a real terror with a tumor the size of a plum. Attached to it are little “worms” growing from the main tumor and spreading across my skull. Over the last year my skull was chopped, my brain lumps were chopped out, and I was drugged and radiated month after month. So since I wrote Nod I have learned a lot more about the “real” universe and lack of sleep.

And the good news it is that it turns out insomnia is not bad at all. I now see the whole universe, having lost the old world. And it’s so beautiful. I now tend to say my cancer is a blessing. If nothing else, these experiences will help me from the lies around us. I’m very grateful for it.

A bit of Googling led me to a piece Barnes wrote for The Daily Beast several months ago in which he describes one specific result of his cancer:

Due to my damaged memory, I couldn’t recall the end of Nod so I went back and checked. I was relieved to see that I’d given Paul some peace just as I’ve received some myself. Phew, I thought, because, let me tell you, I was less than kind to the world as a whole.

Imagine: Reading your own story, and not knowing how it will end. Well, that’s true for all of us, I suppose.

***

Tomorrow: A bit more on Barnes, and memory, and the New Year ahead.

nod jacket