Updated on November 23, 2016
62. ‘Nod’ by Adrian Barnes
This is one of those books I have picked up and put down countless times in bookshops, but last month I had a gift card to spend and I thought it was high time I got it. The cover is beautiful, the blurb intriguing and the story not at all what I expected.
Paul is a writer who lives in Vancouver with his girlfriend Tanya. One morning he wakes up and Tanya tells him that she didn’t sleep the night before; they soon learn that almost nobody on the planet did. It quickly becomes clear that most of the world’s population has lost the ability to sleep, and so the few people, like Paul, who still can, must watch as civilisation descends into anarchy and chaos.
This book did not go to the places I expected it would. I was imagining a more straightforward end-of-the-world-style plot, told through the eyes of one man who has to find a way to keep his partner alive (because if you stop sleeping entirely you will die within a month). Although there is a lot of this kind of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, the main focus of the story (which is not hinted at in the blurb) is actually an allegorical commentary on religion. At the time the insomniac outbreak happens, Paul is writing a linguistics book about lost words and phrases. Charles, a neighbour who nobody likes, gets hold of this book and – through the demented prism of sleeplessness – transforms it into the central text of a new religion, in which the ‘Awakened’ have been made aware of a magnificent, endless Day, and ‘Sleepers’ are sinners who literally close their eyes to revelation. Charles calls their new home Nod (after the title of Paul’s book) and sets Paul up as a prophet of the new religion.
I thought this was a really fascinating direction in which to take the story, and I enjoyed how Barnes transformed the reality of Vancouver into the surreality of Nod. Even though he doesn’t believe in the religion of Nod, Paul starts to see his city being populated by the mythological creatures he has written about: people become animals, Sleeper children are so quiet as to be sinister, and the empty-eyed Awakened are Blemmyes (headless creatures with mouths and eyes in their torsos) and Cat Sleepers (those who wear make-up and pretend that they can sleep). It’s interesting how quickly violence and impulse take over the people who cannot sleep, but it’s even more interesting how the people who still can don’t fully maintain their sanity in the face of everything that is happening.
After the story, this book has an interesting post-script written by Adrian Barnes. He reveals that, when Nod (his first novel, which was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke award in 2013) was being published, he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. His essay, ‘My Cancer is as Strange as Fiction’, plots the weird similarities between what he put his characters through in Nod, and what he experiences himself after his cancer diagnosis. It’s an eerie and moving addition to this peculiar novel, and yet, like the book, it has a strangely uplifting ending.
“Every day is important; each day makes us. Even the nothing ones – especially those, given how they silt up, slowly, burying other, seemingly more momentous moments beneath their weight.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.