The thing is (says Paul, the narrator of Adrian Barnes’s first novel), people forget what the old words mean, the dark realities behind them. A parent sending their sleepy child off to the Land of Nod, for example, probably isn’t aware that that was where God banished Cain for murdering Abel. Nor is it just words: consider Paul’s home city of Vancouver, with its glass towers perched precariously—even defiantly—on the water’s edge, or the vast forest downtown in Stanley Park; a place, Paul implies, where true wilderness hides beneath a thin veneer of urban order. Now, what if that veneer started to crack—what would you see?
Paul is a jobbing writer working on Nod, his history of discarded words, when it starts to happen: when the vast majority of the world’s population has the first of many sleepless nights. A small proportion have slept, Paul included, and dreamed of a golden light; but chronic sleep deprivation sets in for Paul’s wife Tanya, and the rest of the world. Scientists scrabble for answers, but none are forthcoming; soon the society that was disintegrates, and it comes down to cold mathematics and biology: six days without sleep will lead to psychosis; four weeks will lead to death. In other words, although the apocalypse is coming, it is time-limited, and one can plan for its end.
The abruptness with which all this unfolds is disconcerting; it’s “down to business” relatively quickly, when you might expect a novel to dwell more on attempts to prevent what’s happening. Now, focusing on survival is arguably the most appropriate response to the situation Barnes is depicting; and it fits in with the rather cold, reflective character Paul seems to be. But it does make the job of suspending disbelief a little harder, because the proposed timeline for the effects of sleep deprivation isn’t established with clear authority.
Equally, Paul’s perspective by definition can’t show us what “the Awakened” (as those afflicted by the permanent insomnia come to be called) are really experiencing. It is suggested that their perception has become so distorted that they mostly see just what they’re told, and it would take only a word from an authority figure for them to perceive a friend as a monster. There is a sequence in which Paul, when he’s been short of sleep, begins to see the world as the Awakened do:
Before us was a fantastic monochromatic scene, populated by creatures both real and mythical. Writhing pythons, massive, knot-shouldered apes. I recognized a Gandaberunda, the double-headed bird from Hindu mythology; a Cretan Bull or Gyuki with enormous, hollow eyes that glowed like moons. Massive crabs, pincers clicking, and enormous spiders, spike-stepping on the sand.
. . . But surely these weren’t really animals, but people? (pp. 118-9)
This gets the point across, but it’s not truly immersive in the way of Paul’s normal viewpoint; and it is hard not to wish for more in a novel which is all about competing perceptions.
But that competition between perceptions is engrossing stuff. Charles, an Awakened vagrant acquaintance of Paul’s, gets hold of the manuscript of Paul’s book, and uses it to create his own community of Nod, with Paul as the reluctant author of its gospel. Tanya is soon drawn into Charles’s circle, and Paul must find a way to survive whilst Charles seeks to build an empire that will last for eternity (which is what a few weeks will amount to for him).
Barnes emphasizes that the real shaping force behind the apocalyptic world of his novel is not environmental or physical, but mental: “Nod was literally a plague of words” (p. 117). Charles’s Nod is built on nothing more substantial than an unspoken consensus, but he has power because he can make some sort of sense of this new world: “Surrounded by a wasteland of isolates, Charles bore the gift of order” (p. 83). Before the sleeplessness, Charles could be dismissed as a harmless figure with his own idiosyncratic view of the world; but now, his tendency to see patterns in reality that others don’t has given him a head start, because he can make whatever he says be true. This is the battle Paul must fight:
“What if I call in those people out there in the hall and tell them you’re a demon?” [asks Paul]
“Feel free to try [Charles replies]. They might believe you, but then again, they might believe almost anything either of us say. If our mythologies start to clash, I’d say it’s a toss up as to which of us will still have all our arms and legs attached five minutes from now.” (p. 151)
But Nod goes further than this. Charles’s little realm is not just provisional (if a few choice words don’t put paid to it, time eventually will), it’s also parochial—as Paul comes to realize:
It suddenly struck me that not everyone left alive even knew about Nod. Holy shit, I thought, almost no one knew about Nod. The vast majority of the Awakened were living in nameless kingdoms of their own terrified devising, and now they were ranged all around us, trembling and grinding their teeth. (p. 163)
This is what makes Nod so invigorating to read: the constant sense that what we’re reading is not the whole story of this world, played against the knowledge that Paul’s experience is all we have. It means that you never quite know where the novel is going to settle—that this apocalypse is truly a work in progress.
Nod has its shortcomings, in particular its treatment of gender: Tanya is soon lost to the psychosis of sleep deprivation; and the only other female character of note is a child named Zoe, who has only a passive role as someone for Paul to save. But there’s a restlessness about the book which is really pleasing to see; this is a novel that feels endlessly uncomfortable in its own skin, even questioning the usefulness of its medium (Paul wonders who’s going to read this account that he’s writing, and there’s always a gap between the cool tone of his narration and the violent nature of the world it depicts). So what do you see when the veneer of civilization cracks? Nothing but words—which create a whole world, and yet still somehow aren’t enough.
David Hebblethwaite was born in the north of England, went to university in the Midlands, and now lives in the south. Along the way, he has read a lot of books, and has plenty more to go. He blogs at Follow the Thread.