Adrian Barnes, Nod, Titan Books, 2016 (reprint).
Audio version available on Audible.
When I will begin to talk about Nod, people who are old hands at apocalypse novels will watch me with a raised eyebrow: "But C, why are you reviewing it? It sounds like so many others of the same apart from the concept." Very true, but bear with me, because it has redeeming qualities.
Paul lives with his girlfriend Tanya in Toronto. He's currently writing a book on words that have disappeared from modern language. One day, Tanya hasn't slept at all. It seems that almost all of the population of the world has slept either, except a few persons, Paul included. And the following night, nobody sleeps again. And the following night. And the world slowly descends into chaos.
Nod is an apocalyptic novel but with a great concept: sleep deprivation. Of course, it will lead to the same as usual in the genre: infrastructures collapse, economy collapse, relationships collapse, etc. Everything, in short, that makes the glue of the human world whether it relates to our human condition or to technical comforts.
I also do wonder how come it ended up on the Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist of 2013 since there never is a proper explanation for what happened. It has science in the background, obviously, because the collapse uses the findings of sleep deprivation experiments: the human body can endure four weeks of sleep deprivation before death. But apart from that? Well, it happens. Why? Move along, please, this isn't the point.
So, yes, nothing new for old hands at apocalyptic novels except for a great concept. And let me tell you that just a great concept and nothing more than that can have me going for a ten minutes rant without catching my breath. But, obviously, Nod has something more.
The intertextuality in Nod is really enjoyable: first, obviously, there's the book Paul writes, whose title is Nod and that explains words that have disappeared from the world to make way for other words, in the same way that, through sleep deprivation, most the human population dies. The titles of the chapters in the novel are some of these words. There are also the many - and spot on - references to Alice in Wonderland. The world takes on a very fantasmagorical aspect because of the psychosis brought by sleep deprivation or from the dreams the few who still sleep have. Not to mention a few casual reference to Shakespeare here or Escher there.
All of those really contribute to paint this apocalyptic world with a Dali-esque brush.
Another strong point of Nod are that most of the secondary characters are more than just cardboard cut outs who behave according to the clichés of the genre. Paul, the main character, is also very believable and endearing.
Because at heart, Nod isn't just an apocalyptic novel, it's a novel about the human condition: the relationships we forge with others, whether they are because of sheer politeness or social conformism ; the need to sleep, to abandon ourselves to this temporary death of our consciousness and sensations for a few hours every day ; the way we always, always, try to "rationalise" incomprehensible events through mysticism and how we so easily veer into fanaticism and mob behaviour, once you take away the very thin veneer of civilisation ; the need for stories and hope too, even if this hope means saying goodbye to what was and not knowing what will be.
Nod was shortlisted for the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award, a year I had completely missed for different reasons. It didn't win: Dark Eden did. And Dark Eden was a perfect winner. But Nod was also a very worthy contender and if you feel like reading an apocalyptic novel with something more than just a survival tale, it's definitely worth your time and money.
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