As long as I can remember, sleep’s been an issue for me, and as I get older, the problem only gets worse.
In the next month, two very strong novels will be arriving in stores, both using the idea of sleeplessness as a major thematic idea or plot point. Aside from that, though, the books are radically different, and they diverse ways they each approach the personal and or societal fallout from sleeplessness are fascinating to me.
D.C. Pierson is a member of DERRICK Comedy, and one of the stars of the painfully funny “Mystery Team,” which I reviewed last year at Sundance. I’ve linked many times from the Morning Read to D.C.’s blog about moving to Los Angeles, and I’ve gotten to know him a little bit over the course of the year, but even so, I was surprised by how evocative and unique his first novel is. The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep And Never Had To tells the story of Darren, a shy teen who spends most of his time drawing and making notes about an epic SF story he created. One day, he meets Eric, a similarly awkward and lonely teen, and at first their friendship hinges on their mutual creative impulses as Eric becomes involved in Darren’s idea. Gradually, though, they find themselves bound by a secret when Eric reveals to Darren that he never sleeps. Ever. Not at all. No naps. No dozing off. No nothing. It’s hard for Darren to believe at first, but once he believes, he becomes fixated on figuring out why Eric never sleeps, treating it almost like a superpower.
The thing that makes the book work so well is the way Pierson captures the voice of a smart teenager without romanticizing it. Darren narrates the story in first-person and there’s a naive maturity to the storytelling that is very impressive. He perfectly recreates all the longing, all the insecurity, all the confusion and anger and uncontrolled emotion, and he does it without making any of the cheap jokes at the expense of teenage identity that seem to be irresistable to filmmakers. When a girl comes between Eric and Darren, it’s not just a plot device. It matters because it’s clear just how important this friendship is to both boys.
Without spoiling the way the story unfolds, I’ll just say it made me feel like I was reading a long-lost Amblin’ film from the ’80s, but one with an uncommon amount of soul. There is a science-fiction element to the story, but it’s never oversold, and it never takes center stage at the expense of the central relationship, a a balancing act that I’m not sure many storytellers could pull off with this aplomb. Things unravel for Darren and Eric on a sad and seemingly inevitable orbit, and no easy answers are offered. It’s a tremendous debut for a writer, and it establishes an identity for Pierson apart from DERRICK Comedy, one that I find very, very promising.
Charlie Huston, on the other hand, is a well-established brand in literature these days, with a rabid fanbase already in place. I reviewed his last novel here on the blog, and that book, The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs Of Death, is in development now as a series for HBO. That’s a perfect fit. Huston writes crime fiction, but that’s sort of like saying Shakespeare writes plays. Huston is monstrously talented, maybe the best guy working in the genre today. If he chose to just coast along, cranking out one great blood-spattered quirkfest a year, I’m sure none of his readers would complain.
He’s too ambitious for that, though, and I was stunned by the tone and the bleak scope of Sleepless, his dark and haunting look at a Los Angeles ravaged by a plague of sleeplessness. It’s actually a worldwide problem, but he keeps the focus tight, telling the story of an undercover cop working in this near-apocalyptic hellscape. He’s been charged with finding out if there’s an underground market for Dr33mer, the one drug that is able to offer any temporary relief to people who have gone sleepless. It doesn’t cure them, but at least it allows them to sleep and dream again for a litlte while as they burn their way down to zero. There is no surviving the disease once you’re diagnosed. It’s just a question of how you go, and how quickly.
Park, the undercover cop, is driven by his own homelife, where his wife has become sleepless and he’s starting to suspect the same of his infant daughter. His undercover identity as a drug dealer brings him in contact with a wide range of the sleepless, and his travels offer us a portrait of a world that is losing its mind. I sometimes find myself awake for anywhere from 40 to 50 hours, and by the end of that, I feel like I’m coming unraveled. The notion of never sleeping again terrifies me, and Huston taps that feeling in the way he shifts voice throughout the novel, from first person to third person to journal entry, then following a different character whose identity only gradually becomes apparent. As with Pierson’s book, there’s a science-fiction element to the story, but it’s subtle, more like speculative fiction. It’s set in 2010, but recent history is slightly different in Huston’s book than it is in reality, and the slight differences are enough to throw everything into stark relief.
The last third of the book is wrenchingly sad, and shockingly violent, and it’s upsetting because of how personal Huston makes it. I’m still letting the book settle in, still trying to wrap my head around the big ideas and the deeply personal nature of the pain that informs every page, and you can tell just how much Huston’s been impacted by the birth of his own child. There’s an anxiety inherent to parenthood, one that I never felt and was never warned about, and since the first moment I held my first-born son, I’ve had this creeping fear of letting everyone down, of what would happen if the world fell apart and what I would do to protect my kids. Huston’s book plays on an almost primal level, and it’s the darkest thing he’s written so far, an immersive read that I won’t easily shake.
Sleepless was released on January 12, and is available everywhere.
The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To arrives January 26, and is available now for pre-order.
Both are highly, highly recommended.
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