A novel about insomnia and dreams, and thus, almost by definition, it’s surreal.
Calhoun’s premise is brilliant, and he follows it to its logical (and psychological) conclusion. What if, gradually, everyone lost the ability to sleep? What would the world look like? How would contemporary culture shift on its axis? In this narrative, we follow a series of characters drastically affected by this shift, most of them pathological insomniacs, though a few retain their ability to sleep and thus become pariahs to the multitudes of the sleepless. At the center of the novel are Biggs (a “sleeper”) and his wife, Carolyn, who’s given over to the telltale signs of insomnia, including physical symptoms like red-rimmed eyes and psychological symptoms resembling dementia. Over time, Biggs has watched her gradual deterioration, and part of the novel involves Biggs’ quest to find her after she goes missing and to share with her an elaborate dream he’s had, one Carolyn eventually tries to re-create and film. Another symptom of cultural and personal breakdown can be seen in college students Chase and Jordan. Since prescription sleep aids become extraordinarily valuable in a world populated by insomniacs, Chase and Jordan develop a scheme to rip off the pharmaceutical industry by stealing pills from the containers in which sleep medicines are kept. Chase’s ex-girlfriend Felicia works as a lab assistant at a Sleep Research Center, where doctors are desperately trying to find a cure—and where their research sometimes has lethal consequences. Another narrative thread involves high school student Lila, who, like Biggs, has retained her ability to sleep, but she finds she must leave her parents, whose insomnia is leading them toward madness.
Calhoun writes beautifully, though the novel is occasionally slow-moving—and thus, ironically, becomes a cure for insomnia.