Monday, January 18, 2010

Review: Sleepless by Charlie Huston

Right from the very beginning I knew that Sleepless (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound) was going to be something different – potentially something of excellence and almost certainly depressing as hell. Equally clear right from the start was skill that Charlie Huston was wielding with his writing – it’s far superior to other books of his that I’ve read (admitted I’ve only read a couple of the Joe Pitt casebooks). The potential was enormous – potentially something that would break all genre barriers and wind up on Oprah’s list (like The Road a few years ago). And ultimately Sleepless delivers – perhaps not to the same level as The Road (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound), but something special nonetheless.

Sleepless can be described as apocalyptic science fiction, a detective story, a thriller, noir, cyberpunk, near-future sci-fi, or even horror. While all are true to one degree or another, Sleepless is a crime story at its heart – this is simply the story of a dedicated cop working undercover to unearth conspiratorial crime. But let’s not forget that it’s equally apocalyptic – not post-apocalypse, or pre-apocalypse, events in Sleepless occur while civilization is unraveling.

Think about the economic crisis as we’ve known it over the past couple of years – now add to it a plague that is 100% lethal, that infects 10% of the population and is spreading. This plague knows no bounds or economic class – it is everywhere and it is incurable. Once infected a person looses their ability to sleep – they have waking dreams, hallucinations, and are unknowably tired, but they will never sleep again. And they will be sleepless and fully conscious until their inevitable death comes. And they will wreak havoc. The only potential relief comes in the form of Dreamer, a drug that will allow them sleep and if they choose, a peaceful death while sleeping. Dreamer is the drug they need and there isn’t nearly enough.

Park is a unique man who believes in absolute black and white. He truly believes in justice and injustice and absolutely believes that everything will right itself and the world will turn out right. In Park’s world there is no other possible outcome, the world must be right for his wife and infant child. Even if his wife is Sleepless and maybe the infant too. Huston paints Park’s point of view through short absolute bursts of words, approaching telegraphic prose that is perfect for a man of absolute black and white. Huston’s misguided Park denies reality by diving into his work – to infiltrate the Dreamer black-market and find out who’s behind it all. In Park’s mind this will literally save the world.

Balancing Park and his point of view is a more fluid voice, more nuanced, yet in its own way, equally absolute. Jasper is a killer. A man with the experience of a relatively long life, Jasper has embraced the apocalypse as the ideal environment for someone like him to flourish. Through these contrasting voices an interesting truth emerged as I read – the point of view of the killer was much more comforting and less infuriating that the point of view of the hero. And that’s horribly appropriate when the world is ending.

Huston creates an absolutely terrifying world – terrifying because it’s so close to our own. It shows the illusion of civilization that we all live behind for what it is. It shows just what human nature can (and does) do. These are the truths that become evident right from the start and my most optimistic reaction was ‘this can’t end well’.

Oh the end – I wish I could talk about it in detail without spoiling. It is either absolutely brilliant or stunningly wrong. Or perhaps both. I’ve thought on it for days and still haven’t decided, but I think I’ve come to accept that it fits the world that Huston has built. As I said above, ‘this can’t end well’ – the question is just how bad will it be – will any hope be left. Or does everyone die.

So Sleepless is an apocalyptic crime story plus many other pieces that all add up to literary fiction. Yes, this is a book that is both genre and literary (in spite of having a plot). It is very much a discussion on the human condition – it’s just that most of the human conditions viewed are what so many of us would choose to deny exist. This is both a book that I can’t recommend highly enough and a book that I don’t think I ever want to read again. It is excellence, it is depressing as hell, and thankfully, it’s not entirely without hope. 9/10


RedEyedGhost said...

Great review!

I was sure I had preordered this (you know how big of a Huston fan-boy I am), but some how it slipped past me.

That error has been corrected, and your review makes me even more excited about reading it!

Neth said...

I'm surprised that you haven't read it yet - get reading alredy! :P

It's good stuff - a bit different from what Huston's done before, so I'm looking forwar to hearing what you think of it.

Anonymous said...

Just here looking around for BBAW and I'm adding this one to my wish list. The first time I've done that in my judging (but don't tell anybody ;)) Great review.

Neth said...

ahhh....well, glad I could be of help. Funny thing about how these things make for more reading.


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