At first glance “Nod” appears to warrant bracketing with that sub-section of end-of-the-world dystopian SF once disparagingly nicknamed ‘cosy catastrophe’ by Brian Aldiss in his discussion of the 1950s novels of John Wyndham, with their supposed propensity for depicting educated, can-do middle-class characters adapting to a post-apocalyptic environment in the wake of some disaster or other, surviving the destruction of modern civilisation with relatively little personal hardship even as the rest of society goes to ‘hell in a handbasket’. The couple at the heart of Adrian Barnes’s debut, etymologist Paul and his partner Tanya, are similarly portrayed as intelligent, self-aware, capable and engaged metropolitan individuals, living in present-day Vancouver, British Columbia: they appear to remain at least partially grounded during the opening acts of Barnes’s take on the theme of contemporary western civilisation once-more being imagined in the midst of not coping with an sudden, inexplicable crisis; and they bear witness to the frightening madness of crowds in queasy close-up as a worldwide disaster squeezes its grip and they are forced to traverse their striking, coastal home city -- epicentre of urban sophistication with its glinting glass towers and planned spaces -- in search of food supplies and medical assistance after Paul is randomly attacked in the street by a stranger during the gathering storm. They remain relatively immune to the impulsive destructive urges that, pretty early on in the narrative, are seen overcoming everybody else in the vicinity. And Paul and Tanya even come to the rescue (and pretty much thereafter adopt) an apparently orphaned child, who’s being threatened by one of the many irrational mobs of ‘vigilante’ hunters running rampant through downtown Vancouver’s formerly elegant, upscale streets, along with the urban snipers and a host of other threatening semi-psychotic crazies by this point competing for their fatal attention.
But in swapping Wyndham’s English-Home-Counties-under-attack settings for Vancouver’s pristine cityscapes and lush forest parklands, the story gradually unveils itself as a convincing tip of the hat towards the allegorical end of literary existentialism – occupying a similar space to philosophically inclined novels such as Albert Camus’s “The Plague”. “Nod” evokes the surrealistic, detached tone of that work (along with its cryptic philosophical asides, courtesy of Paul in his capacity as the story’s narrator), as it implacably details the processes involved in the stripping away of the thin veneer of psychological balance which enables the functioning maintenance of our consensus reality, identifying that mode of being as perhaps the only thing that prevents human society sliding into total chaos. Barnes employs an intriguing high concept plot device that lends itself -- as do, for instance, the inscrutable scenarios presented by the work of Portuguese novelist José Saramago -- to a robust symbolism and a subtle irony: the novel’s events hinge on an intriguingly mysterious and gripping idea that, by lurking conspicuously unexplained at the centre of the action, plays up to Camus’ core concept of the absurd, while the novel is granted considerably more power from the knowledge that, since its North American publication in 2013, the author’s own life has developed in a manner that almost puts him in a comparable situation to his protagonists, to all intents and purposes turning the work into a symbolic post-hoc representation of Barnes’s own predicament after being diagnosed and treated for an aggressive form of brain cancer with a low survival rate and a harsh treatment programme which has left the perceived world an irrevocably changed place for him: a case not so much of life imitating art as of coming to haunt it.
The unexplainable, world-wide event that defines the book’s sphere of action and determines its hallucinogenic tone thereafter as civilisation is plunged off of the cliff-face of order into the tumultuous seas of unreason and of mass psychological unravelling, is a simple but eerily disturbing one: the citizens of Vancouver rise one morning to discover that almost no-one in the entire world - except for perhaps one person in every ten thousand - has had a wink of sleep the previous night ...
At first this curious and puzzling phenomenon is merely the latest topic to fill the airways and social media with its relentless 24/7 chatter-stream of opinion, filling rolling news stories, comment shows and buzz feeds; the ephemeral stuff that clutters our daily lives in today’s perpetually switched-on multi-media world. But when the same thing happens all across the world for a second night in a row, and then the same thing the night after that, panic sets in as people realise that it will take just six days of this sustained level of absolute sleep deprivation for mass psychosis to set in. This will eventually lead to complete mental breakdown followed quickly by death, and is now the inevitable fate looming sharply into focus for the majority of the human race. Order quickly begins to break down as any convincing answers as to the true nature of this mass outbreak of sleeplessness conspicuously fail to materialise, despite the constant TV pontificating and speculation of ‘experts’. Meanwhile those few who do still have the ability to sleep all experience the same strange dream sensation, characterised by a golden light and a sense of serenity.
We follow Paul and Tanya as they take to the streets in an attempt to find safe haven and protect the orphaned child they rescue and name Zoe, all they while knowing Tanya is herself one of the sleepless and has only a short time before her mind also crumbles and dissolves, just like the structures that have previously always held the wider waking world together. This is a dystopia in which the disintegration of civilisation is intrinsically linked to an extremely intimate and personal form of gradual physical and mental dissipation; we are being pitched a similar type of deal here, then, to that which informs the HBO television series “The Leftovers”, recently developed by Damon Lindelof from Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name. The explanation for why this uncanny event has occurred is never forthcoming, just as the explanation for the disappearance of two per cent of the world’s population in “The Leftovers” is never the main focus of that series. The sleeplessness stands more as a symbol for the kinds of philosophical points the author wants to use the dystopian template to address, most of which concern how we wrangle our perception of reality out of a mixture of shared beliefs that are the product of how the perceptual apparatus of the brain is set up to function, particularly the language structures -- which seem to be the key to consciousness in a novel which is more than usually driven by ideas about how the capacity for language creates self and society, and what happens to the words that get left behind or ‘orphaned’ as societies change and develop. Do they still lurk somewhere in the putative collective consciousness, ready someday to be reactivated in the right circumstances? As was the case in “The Leftovers”, the narrative is only concerned with its characters’ initial obsession with an explanation for events in terms of examining their reactions to there being none on offer; the book operates in a liminal space -- on an double allegorical level that comes to allow it to function as both a disturbing personal account of mental breakdown (and a record of what it is like to watch a loved one slowly sink into dementia), and as a wider pessimistic treatise on the illusory nature of a human awareness rooted in language, where sanity masks ‘a planetary core of pain’.
Paul’s work as an etymologist is the key to this fundamental concept, both in terms of it providing Paul’s (and therefore the novel’s) philosophical outlook and as a driver of plot. At the start of the book he’s working on a popular book about ‘the history of side-tracked words’, a plausible project in which the secret origin of words reveal what Paul refers to as ‘old, unmanned realities [that] lurk in eternally dark woods, in nursery tales, police reports, and skittish memories’ (a similar idea informs nature writer Robert Macfarlane’s “Landmarks” which unearths lost words that were once used to describe features of the British landscape and which illuminate its poetry in ways largely now lost to a modern observer). He calls his proposed book ‘Nod’ – the name of the barren nightmare land in the book of Genesis where Cain was sent when he was expelled from Adam’s domain, but also a fairy-tale kingdom that exists in dreams and which is where parents urge their sleepy children at bedtime. The really interesting move Barnes then makes comes about when Paul’s unfinished manuscript is stolen, and his thesis becomes the basis of an irrational death cult invented by a disenfranchised acquaintance called Charles. Charles has always been on the fringes of society till now. But with the breakdown of the conventional consensus that stitches together the sanity of modern civilisation, Charles is able to remodel the building bricks of reality through his control of words, to place himself as chief overlord at the head of a horde of sleep deprived psychotics. He uses the central idea at the core of Paul’s manuscript to help him achieve that goal and, as events spiral further and further out of control, Paul finds himself co-opted into becoming the new order’s dispensable prophet, whose misanthropic vision is now shaping the shared reality of a small group of deranged individuals. Charles puts Paul’s thesis into action: ‘we can rename. If we need to we can change the meaning of words. Or make up new ones and make them mean what we want!’ With Tanya, her mind and her relationship with Paul disintegrating, being held prisoner as a sort of willing sex toy, Paul is forced to give ‘sermons’ in which his own literary ideas now become the basis of a perverted theology that literally only has a few days’ shelf life, since everyone in the world is soon going to die!
At first Charles is merely cynically exploiting the situation just to briefly empower himself before the end of humanity -- even, absurdly, renaming himself The Admiral of the Blue. But, of course, since he is also one of the sleepless, he too eventually succumbs to the mass psychosis and ends up believing his own made up myths: a sort of L Ron Hubbard crossed with Charles Manson, who comes to worships his own 'Nodgod'. Interestingly, the way Barnes constructs the novel expands on the strange, uncanny ideas it uses as the basis of its plotting, since the kinds of metaphors and synonyms Paul tends to rely on in the early parts of the novel, before the complete breakdown of order, echo some of the actual events which later transpire, subtly embellishing the notion that Paul’s book is now becoming the core text of humanity’s new version of a consensus reality -- where the closest thing to hope for any kind of future for the human race lies with the mute children whose complete abandonment of language seems to go hand-in-hand with their peaceful sense of serenity. The structure of the novel, as it follows the decline of society, retraces the trajectory of an individual life: relationships fall apart as innocence is stripped away and people age and become decrepit or ill; but hope lies in creating and protecting the next generation, nurturing and venerating their guileless interaction with the world as something to be cherished in an age of violence and cynicism. Paul’s quest of protecting Zoe from Charles and his lynching gang, who see the strange groupings of silent children who retain the gift of sleep as devils whose existence denies the cult’s ‘Eternal Day’ theology, becomes the chief focus of a novel in which, for Paul, Zoe becomes an emblem of the idea of an escape from the cycle of despair borne by the prison of language and of preserving his memory of Tanya, where this child represents something that his partner had deeply cared about in her last days of sanity before joining the grotesque carnival of horror that is Charles’s world of ‘Nod’.
“Nod” is a profoundly creepy, often disturbing book, mixing Lovecraftian pessimism for humanity’s lost ability to understand itself or the roots of its own reality, with a yearning need for an impossible transcendence. Vancouver’s unique seaport mix of metropolitan urbanity balanced precariously on the edge of primeval rainforest surrounded by mountains provides the novel with settings that become borders for competing visions of the world, the areas where transient residential city areas that have falsely imagined themselves eternal meet the marginalised but ageless forests of Stanley Park and become the battlegrounds for two versions of Nod – Charles’s biblical nightmare and the fairytale kingdom belonging to the children. Barnes’s use of his home city and its nearby districts and landmarks grounds his increasingly abstract, often lysergic tale of dissolving consciousness in a real-world locale, with the result that the novel’s sense of unreality becomes all the more acute for its basis in real place names as the tale progresses onward to its spiralling conclusion. A haunting, genuinely thought-provoking read, augmented in this new UK edition, published by Titan, with the author’s essay, My Cancer is as Strange as My Fiction, which was originally published on the website The Daily Beast but here becomes a suitably arresting afterward for a story about the end of the world being one with the end of conscious awareness.