I’m used to picking silent fights with Eric Brown. In his science fiction round-up for the Guardian of March 8th, Brown declared Adrian Barnes’s debut novel, Nod, now shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, “outstanding”. If his were the only positive judgement to which I find myself opposed, I wouldn’t be surprised. But here’s the always-sensible David Hebblethwaite on the same work: “a novel that feels endlessly uncomfortable in its own skin”, he says; according to perennial white-hat Jared Shurin at Pornokitsch, “Nod is a corker”; in an exchange on Twitter, meanwhile, Farah Mendlesohn (with whom I admittedly share more regular disagreements) praised the book’s “relentlessness”.
Undoubtedly, all of this praise has come couched in the caveats routine for criticism of a debut novel: “relentlessness” is a word which cuts both ways, of which I’m sure Farah is aware; Jared points out that Nod can be meandering and pretentious; and David highlights the novel’s treatment of gender as problematic. Now then. What might it be that leads them to place the balance in the positive where I tip it in the opposite direction? Nod felt naive to me, a book rather in love with its own cleverness without the technique or panache to follow through on it. Certainly it is admirably fearless – a novel so unremittingly committed to ugliness has to be – and in this sense it has a real unity of theme, character and diction. But, and perhaps my tolerance for this is not what it should be, Nod is also monomaniacal and solipsistic.
This, admittedly, may be part of the point. Nod begins where many stories end – with a sleep. The twist is that, as the protagonist, a misanthropic writer named Paul, and his partner, an unsympathetic woman named Tanya, lay down their heads to slumber one night, only he can drop off. They soon discover that it is Paul, not Tanya, who is unusual: almost everyone on Earth can now no longer sleep. The reason for this acute insomnia is never explained, and the novel rather cocks a snook at books which might pretend to rigour in this regard, spending a few pages waving its hands vigorously and to deliberately slight effect. Insomia, it turns out, is entirely the wrong model for what develops: even insomniacs doze, despite their experience otherwise; in Nod – simultaneously the name of a book about lost words Paul is writing, the location to which all sleeping children are transported, the land of Cain, and the streets of Barnes’s Vancouver once sleeplessness takes hold – no rest is possible. The absence of sleep is total.
Six days without sleep ends in psychosis; more than thirty, according to Barnes, is impossible – the body cannot subsist for long without rest. This, as David has noted in his review, gives Barnes’s particular apocalypse an explicitly temporary aspect. It also lends it a plausibly nasty one: when everyone is mad for lack of sleep, even the usual tropes of Armageddon – the attempt to save civilisation, small groups banding together for mutual protection, a wistfulness for what once was – are absent. Instead, a crank Paul and Tanya routinely dismissed at their local diner becomes a demagogic leader in the new, mad, society, and even the strongest bonds of love and society are quickly broken.
This is where, for me, Nod falls down. Its first person narrator, Paul, has never been burdened with what we might call the tenderer feelings. He considers himself much too clever to have bought into our comfortable consensus: “At times everyone wonders how deeply buried contempt is beneath the surface of their friends’ and lovers’ smiles,” he opines early on. “Most of us suspect – accurately, I believe – that it lies in a shallow grave, gasping for breath beneath a damp mulch of manners and restraint.” [pg. 31] The clogged, gagging voice is typical of Paul’s style, but so, too, is the nihilism. His narrative is depicted as a diary of events, written as they proceed, and so we can see that he is not transformed by the degradations of Nod – he begins fully converted to the concept that society is a sham. When the novel attempts to interest us in its destruction, then, it fails.
For Paul, contemporary society is “television’s caffeinated universe” [pg. 13], all false sentiment and instant gratification. Barely three days into the crisis, he is already capable of thus describing his long-term partner, desperate for the sex she thinks might send her to sleep: “a beige fleck of shit in the crinkles of her asshole, a rawness to the lips of her vagina” [pg. 32]. When, late in the novel, he cuts “her throat with an orange box cutter I found in a cupboard then […] marked her as mine” [pg. 158], we’re not shocked, sickened or saddened, simply surprised it took so long. (In case you were wondering, Tanya – who a few pages earlier takes the “flaccid penis” of her domesday cult’s leader into her mouth whilst Paul looks away in disgust, is the site of the gender “problems” David identifies.)
For Paul, society is much like language: beneath its agreed surface of approved vocabulary and shared grammar is a stinking cesspit of forgotten and disused words and terms. He uses some of these as his chapter headings, and though one might wonder why “Abraham’s bosom” (“the repose of the happy in death”) or “Waking a Witch” (“an iron bridle or hoop was bound across her face with four prongs thrust into her mouth […] in such a way as the ‘witch’ was unable to lie down”) are all that interesting or powerful, they add a superficial grit to proceedings, a bit like pebbledash. Still, the theory that forgotten words parallel forgotten people – “Nod was always out there, always peeking around a corner and watching us. In poverty, In the misfiring DNA of cancer cells” [pg. 107] – is under-developed and in execution rather weak. “There’s more power in words than people think,” Paul intones near the end of his narrative. “How does the Bible begin? In the beginning was the Word.” [pg. 198] This veers towards the banal rather than the revelatory.
There is an unspoken critical rule that you don’t lay in too heavily on debuts, and undoubtedly there are fumbles here of that sort: Paul literally counting the dead as they fall in a battle he describes as chaotic (“1000, 999, 998, 997 …” [pg. 188]), or the questionable, however poetic, assertion that “when the old get exhausted, you can begin to see through the surface of their translucent skin, right down to the liquid workings below” [pg. 183]. If we draw a veil over these, however, then the heart of this novel still beats in irregular rhythm. The children who can still sleep, more numerous than their increasingly persecuted adult counterparts, drift through the novel as the future of human civilisation, but, perhaps because Barnes is most interested in the passing nature of his apocalypse, they are thinly drawn (“probably just some sort of next step in evolution,” Paul reasons helpfully [pg. 193]). Caught in this confused moment, the intellectual element of the book is too often reduced to sophomoric debates between apparently under-informed pub sceptics: “I always wondered about Jesus, you know,” says one such interlocutor. “Know what I think? […] Maybe there were no miracles. Maybe Jesus was a faker.” Paul responds with what counts as a rhetorical flourish in a sleep-addled world and an under-cooked novel: “Why a faker? Maybe there’s another explanation. What if he never pretended to be the Son of God?” [pg. 147] Socratic dialogue Nod ain’t.
All that being said, Nod is, when compared to the predictability of The Dog Stars, a satisfyingly disruptive novel, and too few of these are given the – ahaha – nod. The Clarke seems to have rewarded Barnes both for his vim and voice: where I have referred to the narration in this review, I’ve written of Paul, because Barnes has crafted so convincing a style that it would be unfair to pretend the novel isn’t wholly conveyed in fully-realised character. Even its wearisome lack of jokes is part of this emotional unity – “Humour had been the first casuality in Nod”, after all [pg. 171]. Not only that, but there is a method to the madness of its baggy and unresolved structure: in the first few pages Paul reads a news story that “just stopped dead, as news stories do, when the action tank ran dry” [pg. 5]. Nod, too, ends in this way, a frontline report from an incomplete and incoherent ragnarok. As complete as Paul is, however, and as smartly captured its partiality, Barnes’s novel feels too excited by its slight transgressions to put real thought in how to lend them any real power or heft. Nod is filled to bursting point with sound and fury, but, if I were to bring my own balance to this asymmetrical novel, I might argue that its words are far from signifying all that Paul thinks they do.