(Book Review) Nod by Adrian Barnes

By Katy Goodwin-Bates

nodAs a long-time devotee of The Walking Dead, there is one thing I know about post-apocalyptic situations: when everything goes to shit, it’s other humans I need to watch out for. If the end comes, I’m not worried about zombies; I’ll be sleeping with one eye open watching for people, because they will want to steal my stuff and eat my legs. Adrian Barnes’ Nod espouses a similar philosophy: in a world where the vast majority of the population suddenly loses the ability to sleep, those who still can are best advised not to, lest they suffer a nasty “accident” at the hands of an envious insomniac.

That central premise is genius in its simplicity, and it is executed brilliantly. Paul, the main character and narrator, is one of the “lucky” ones -he can still sleep. His partner, Tanya, cannot. One night of this seems like an inconvenience, but when they turn on the TV, Paul and Tanya find talking heads on the news theorizing that the body can handle six days of sleep deprivation before psychosis sets in; after four weeks, the body will die. If that’s not something to fuel an insomniac’s nocturnal fretting, I don’t know what is. This is why I think Barnes’ concept is so clever. Who hasn’t spent a sleepless night worrying about whether they’ll ever sleep properly again? Who hasn’t had to struggle through a day of work, or school, or childcare, without the requisite eight hours of shut-eye? Barnes taps into all our somnolent neuroses to produce a narrative that seems inconceivable but could possibly have you tossing and turning with fear at 3 a.m.

“All  I think of when I try to imagine absolute sleeplessness is a single day that never ends – a good working definition of Hell. Hell is time, isn’t that obvious? Take your greatest pleasure or your greatest fantasy and let it come continuously true – for a day,a week, a year, a decade. And that’s Hell.” – page 122

The novel’s structure, in the form of a daily account of Paul’s activities and observations, fuels the escalating horror of a largely sleepless Vancouver. Before long, terrifying cults form, preying on the fears of desperate, tired souls as well as the bodies of the fortunate few still capable of night-time relaxation. A city previously familiar to Paul soon becomes a horror-filled wasteland; fearful that exposure to technology has rendered the global population sleepless, the authorities switch off power and internet, leaving those who remain to fight for survival -literally, as the psychosis of “the Awakened” develops in earnest. There are at least three moments in Nod which made me physically shudder. It’s a horror novel which sneaks up on you, initially tricking you into thinking it’s not actually a horror novel. The capacity of some to take advantage of catastrophe, even if their advantage can only last until their body shuts down from lack of sleep, is both realistically presented and insidious.

An interesting aspect of Nod is Paul’s former job as an etymologist and the influence his work unexpectedly has over the new world, short-lived as it is. In a world where all sense is being eroded, language starts to lose all meaning. Paul is treated as a prophet, but his linguistic nous gains him little in the terrifying landscape Barnes creates. The unusual words which title each chapter are evidence of Paul’s dwindling relevance in this frightening new world, with his role becoming merely that of chronicler of the chaos. Yes, he can explain the root of the phrase “admiral of the blue,” but he cannot embody it, which places him under threat when power is seized by an unlikely but sinister figure.

All our sci-fi nightmares were coming true. And then a thought hits me: everything we can imagine is possible. Everything. All my life I, along with most of the rest of the world, had been subjected to an endless loop of snuff porn: annihilation by nuke, war, economic catastrophe, and/or zombie attack. But I’d never taken it seriously.  (page 123)

Barnes has included an essay as a kind of footnote to Nod, entitled My Cancer is as Strange as my Fiction; explaining that he was diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer around the time of writing the novel, Barnes draws thought-provoking parallels between the physical degradation of his sleepless characters and his own disease. When the author explains, “I began to see the end of everything,” Paul’s experiences in the novel are imbued with added pathos and Nod becomes something more than a dystopian horror.

Nod is undeniably an engrossing read; the escalating horror caused by one simple change in humanity is a compelling topic and Adrian Barnes crafts a narrative that is believable, even when you’d really prefer not to believe it in order to get a good night’s sleep.

Nod will be available soon at Greenville Public Library.

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