Books which are published by small publishing houses are rarely reviewed by big newspapers, and this is a shame, because small publishing houses often publish excellent work. One example is “The Madman of Freedom Square” by the brilliant Hassan Blasim, published by Comma Press. Another is “Nod”, by Adrian Barnes.
The plot is a grand metaphor worthy of Jose Saramago. For no apparent reason (though people scramble for political and spiritual explanations) people stop sleeping. Only about one in ten thousand people are spared the insomnia plague, and these quickly become victims of an anti-sleeper mass frenzy. The Awakened, as they become known, suffer gradual degeneration through irritability and clumsiness, detachment and madness, to death. Our narrator, a writer of obscure books on obscure words and phrases, is one of the remaining sleepers. Being an expert on words, he reminds us that ‘Nod’ has two somewhat contradictory meanings – both the pleasant sleepy land we send children to, and the land of Nod, the barren desolation to which God sent Cain. The narrator has to watch as his long-term girlfriend and just about everyone else around him degenerate.
If this is science fiction, it’s the literary and philosophical end of the genre, Ray Bradbury or Kafka territory. With a few inversions, Barnes’s nightmare is not so different from this ordinary sleeping world. A former social outcast discovers leadership qualities and his own religion, and sets the people to useless work. Silent children hide in parks. The experience of watching someone you love stop talking to you, stop seeing you, and finally turn into an incomprehensible monster, will be familiar to many people who’ve suffered a relationship breakdown.
Barnes, or his narrator, does something that most contemporary fiction writers shy away from – he projects a critical moral voice. Writers tend to avoid moral criticism both because it’s unfashionable and because it’s so difficult to pull off without sounding preachy. But Adrian Barnes pulls it off. His observations are accurate and often funny.
The novel has compulsive readability, mainly because we want to see what happens next in this collapsing world, and to these collapsing humans. It appeals to sadistic and masochistic urges in the reader. (Look at them collapse!/ how would I collapse?). But we also read because the prose is surprising and frequently beautiful, and because there’s a great question on almost every page. Very highly recommended.
full disclosure: Adrian Barnes is a friend of mine. We sometimes share writing ideas. But I’d have written this anyway, and I mean every word.