The protagonists of Nino Ricci’s newest novel, Sleep, and his last, The Origin of Species, are both intellectually blocked academics who have problematic relationships with women and skeletons in their closets. But where Origin’s Alex Fratarcangeli eventually finds redemption through empathy for a series of people who enter his life, Ricci has deemed that neither conscience nor outward interference will impede Sleep’s David Pace in his journey down a path of moral depravity and self-sabotage.
Which is to say Sleep is the novel Origin might have been had Ricci decided then, instead of now, to jettison the conventional Aristotelian notions about character and catharsis that underpinned that terrific novel. Sleep is Ricci’s Bad Lieutenant moment, the difference being that Harvey Keitel’s character had, however well hidden, a moral code that allowed him to suffer a crisis of conscience. It’s a novel likely to spur another insipid debate about whether characters need to be “likeable,” which David is not. But let’s hope that it doesn’t, and that readers are willing to follow Ricci to the festeringly grim but undeniably compelling place he has travelled to.
David suffers from a sleep disorder that causes narcoleptic spells—in the novel’s opening scene he nearly drives off the highway coming home from the zoo with his young son. A history professor in his forties whose specialty is ancient Rome, he is starting to think that the “unholy zeitgeist triumvirate” (Prozac, Viagra and Ritalin) he takes is “extinguishing the person he thinks of as himself.”
But it’s also the case that the person being extinguished wasn’t all that great in the first place. Before the disorder, and the crumbling ten-year marriage that he thought might make him a better man, David considered himself “a bounder, a striver, a climber, a cad. Someone in whom the impulse to cut and run was as instinctive as breathing.” He has always been a reprobate; sleep deprivation has just made him a less filtered, more reckless one.
David is living in Toronto when the novel begins, having left Montreal years ago to avoid the fallout from an incident where he gave a student a poor mark for a paper that he then plagiarized. He is still trying to regain the celebrity he achieved in his thirties for his book, Masculine History, whose contentious great-man thesis was also stolen—in this case from his friend Greg, who suggested it jokingly during a bender. Sleeplessness now threatens to scuttle his latest project, a “doomsday book” about the inevitability of civilizational collapse: “How in an instant humans could revert from the civilized to the savage.”
Another of insomnia’s byproducts, anger, is contributing to the blurring of borders David is experiencing between impulse and restraint; right and wrong. Even the sleep clinic he goes to seems “steeped somehow in moral ambiguity: the surly technicians from their war-torn countries where they might as easily have been perpetrators as well as victims.” One room has a reproduction of Goya’s painting The Sleep of Reason Breeds Monsters, a statement we will find to be true.
David enters a new, entropic phase when he comes into possession of a World War Two-era handgun belonging to his dead father, with whom he had always clashed. An investigation into its manufacture confirms a dark secret in his father’s past; but instead of antagonism, David suddenly feels a sense of connection. He joins a shooting club and starts acquiring more guns. Firing them, he finds, makes him feel awake in a way drugs do not.
As the novel progresses, the breakdown in David’s mental borders is increasingly mirrored in his physical world. This is hinted at even in the beginning, where animals have been making incursions into the city: “Meanwhile, the humans grow savage. Jogging past the camps of the homeless that dot the valley, David has seen the scattered bits of offal and bone and matted fur from their kills.” Later, when he’s forced to take a lesser teaching position in an unnamed American rust-belt city following rumours that he date-raped a new hire, David observes the abrupt juxtaposition between genteel, picket fenced-neighbourhoods and burned-out strip malls: civilization and its undoing, steps apart.
The position had been arranged by Greg—an act of pity for which David demonstrates his gratitude by having an affair with Greg’s wife that gives new meaning to the term “sordid.” Ricci’s description of their sex, “They don’t discuss what they do or why, only move forward like blind things, eating whatever they stumble on, crawling into whatever hole,” suggests that David has unlocked a new level of purgatory, or circle of hell.
By the novel’s end David has made his way to a war-torn middle-eastern country—Afghanistan? Iraq?—where he has ostensibly come for research purposes. Lawless, borderless and overrun with child soldiers, David’s environment is no longer a mirror, or even a palimpsest, of his psychic landscape; it’s an extension of it.
As he struggles with the book he seems likely never to finish, the irony is that as the ruin of his own decadence, of his own ungovernable sprawl, David has become the fleshly embodiment of his own thesis. Like Dorothy in Oz, his heart’s dark desire has been right there all along, in his own backyard.
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor