I’ve been an insomniac since I was born; one of the stories my mother tells is how I stayed awake for almost three days after she brought me home from the hospital. So perhaps I’m sympathetic to the idea of the end of civilization caused by sleeplessness.
That’s the scenario envisioned by Charlie Huston in his new novel Sleepless. A new prion has emerged that’s killing 10 percent of the population, but not quickly. First, they lose the ability to sleep, and the rest of the world unravels pretty quickly. Twenty-four hour traffic jams clog La Cienega. The economy finally stops staggering under its crushing load of debt and collapses. Neighborhoods turn into armed camps as government shatters. The fire department stops coming. The police put concrete barriers and razor wire around their stations. Somehow, the Oscars manage to survive.
I’ve been a fan of Huston for a while, but this is an amazing departure. It’s as if, after cruising along at 30,000 feet, the pilot of your plane comes on the intercom and says, “Folks, this has been nice, but I think we’re going to take this up a notch.” And then cranks the stick back and turns your business trip to Houston into a shot into moon orbit.
The Sleepless, as they’re called, have changed all of everyday life, but everyone pretends not to notice. They can function for months, in incredible pain, but only losing their minds and their abilities at the very end. They shamble about all day and night, looking for any distraction. There are inevitable zombie comparisons. But there’s nothing terrifying about the Sleepless. They’re sad and desperate. Dreamer, the only drug capable of delivering sleep to them, doesn’t cure them. It only makes their final days a little more peaceful. And of course, there’s nowhere near enough to go around.
What’s most disturbing about Huston’s apocalypse (I’m going to go ahead and coin the term “sleepocalypse” here, although I’m slightly ashamed of myself for doing so) is how much of it is simply taken from the 24-hour news cycle. The book takes place in 2010. Right now. And aside from a few details, it’s all happening. Political deadlock. Incoherent rage. Escape into the wildly elaborate manufactured worlds of gaming and mass media.
Think I’m exaggerating? Well, there are people protesting about a giant corporation’s treatment of a multi-millionaire talk-show host while the idea of tax-funded health care somehow drives people to consider armed uprisings against the government. So yeah, maybe it’s not as close as I think, but it’s not that far, either.
What happens next is the answer to the question Jim Harrison posed, “when distraction becomes the center of our lives, what’s left?”
The people who have to find out are Park, a rookie LAPD officer tasked with finding the illegal sale of Dreamer, and Jasper, a former soldier and paid killer who’s turned his PTSD into something like art. Their paths intertwine through the broken landscape of Los Angeles, into nightclubs, gold farms, bomb craters and the virtual realms of a massive online game called Chasm Tide.
All of this imagination and action is nothing new for Huston (talented bastard). But what made this novel different for me was the development of the characters. Park’s wife has become one of the Sleepless, and he fears their infant daughter may be infected, too. Park is an anachronism — he lives by a strict moral code; the last Stoic. No one on the force wants to work with him because they see that the world is going down in flames. Park sees it too, but won’t bend. He believes he can save his family by saving the world, and it’s fascinating to watch someone so pure move through so much corruption.
Jasper, the aging mercenary, lives by his own code as well. He’s drawn into Park’s orbit when he’s hired to find a hard drive that has become a piece of evidence in Park’s investigation, and from the moment they begin circling one another, you know Park would lose against this man. Jasper has refined his world into a series of highly aesthetic, highly lethal mechanisms, a wholly manufactured collage of house, dress, art, and transport that is not so much a shield as a weapon. He’s both chilling and charming, and despite his casual disposal of human life, it’s easy to root for him. He’s not the sentimental cliche of a killer with a soft spot. He’s more complex, and sometimes he discovers his motives barely a step ahead of the reader.
The end of the world is a favorite theme for too many people today. (Latest example: Book of Eli, $32.7 million opening weekend. And in another parallel with Sleepless, the number one movie, again, was Avatar, a retreat into a virtual world that resembles a video game.) It seems like we literally cannot imagine how the world will survive. So we dream of how it will end, over and over again. But Huston manages to sidestep the familiar path to Armageddon, and instead finds the pieces of the world worth saving.
Sleepless is about how we live our dreams when we can’t close our eyes anymore. It’s amazing. You should read it.