320 Front Street West, Suite 1400
Toronto, ON M5V 3B6
2015, 256 pp., $30.00, ISBN: 9780385681605
80 bpNichol Lane
Toronto, ON M5S 3J4
2015, 136 pp., $14.95, ISBN: 9781552453124
Assembling the Morrow
278 East 1st Avenue
Vancouver, BC V5T 1A6
2014, 144 pp., $24.95, ISBN: 9780889229105
A curious thing happens when you read three books about the (dys)functions of sleep in a row. Can you guess what it might be?
Actually, I exaggerate. Spending time with these new works from Nino Ricci, R.M. Vaughan and Sandra Huber—one a novel, one a book-length essay, the third a mash-up of academic text and poetry—did not so much have a negative impact on my own restfulness as make me more keenly aware of the landscapes of slumber, and of my own good fortune. I am what these writers might (snidely, or perhaps jealously) dub a “sound sleeper.” My trick to achieving decent shut-eye involves—to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling—filling each unforgiving minute with 60 seconds’ worth of distance run. Five days a week I rise at 4:30 a.m. and write fiction for three hours. I then trundle off to a lucrative, rewarding office job for another eight. Evenings and weekends are reserved for reading, the gym, the occasional freelance book review, or blogging. By the time 9:30 p.m. rolls around, I am able (and eager) to assume unconsciousness. Disruptions are almost always of the external variety—say, a late-night brawl between our two cats, which my wife and I take turns breaking up—rather than deep-seated fears or anxieties that loom and spiral during the nocturne hours.
This makes me somewhat of a tourist in the worlds that Ricci, Vaughan and Huber have created. Yet there is enough in these respective pages to resonate with even those of us who don’t have problems in the bedroom. We learn a number of things here about sleep and, especially, the lack of it. We learn that insomnia is profoundly psychological, profoundly individual, and has the capacity to animate our darkest desires, our worst selves. We learn that sleeplessness is a growing socio-economic issue, bourne of invasive technologies that never allow us to “turn off” and the neoliberal edicts of bootstrapism and market-driven thinking. But we also learn that sleep remains a verdant mystery for both scientists and artists alike, and even with the malleable excesses of “experimental” poetry, we cannot even begin to touch its complexities.
David Pace, the downwardly mobile protagonist of Nino Ricci’s new novel, knows all about sleep disorders. The book opens with David, a history professor in Toronto who specializes in ancient Rome, briefly blacking out behind the wheel of his car while driving down a busy highway with his young son Marcus in the back seat. His child’s plaintive pleas snap David from his narcoleptic slumber and he narrowly avoids crashing into a car that has pulled off to the side of the road. The scene, harrowing and vivid, casts us immediately into David’s troubled world. He suffers from both insomnia and narcolepsy, and is taking a cocktail of medications to battle these ailments (indeed, each chapter in Part 1 is named after a prescription drug). His marriage to his wife Julia is loveless and rocky, with resentments seething under the surface after David had to flee an academic position in Montreal following a charge of plagiarism and move them to Toronto, a city Julia does not want to live in. David is also struggling to follow up on a successful academic book he published years earlier, called Masculine History, by completing a new tome—this one about the collapse of civilization (the topic for which will prove symbolic as the novel moves along).
Of all of these issues, his deteriorating marriage is the most pressing. The near-crash on the highway happens after David is returning late with Marcus from a visit to the zoo, and his tardiness precipitates a massive fight with Julia. We learn that their relationship is utterly devoid of love, kindness, or affection (so devoid, in fact, that it stretches the boundaries of plausibility; how have they stayed together this long?); but what is interesting is the way Ricci weaves David’s sleep disorder in to the very fabric of their marital strife. There is a passage that comes later in the book in which Ricci writes:
There were studies that suggested one of the functions of sleep was exactly to mitigate the day’s injuries and slights, through an intricate mechanics of deep sleep and dream that gradually wore down every grievance and sublimated every hurt.
This speaks to the heart of what’s going on between David and Julia. There is such lingering resentment there, so much anger, and his insomnia exacerbates everything.
Like many people who suffer from chronic, debilitating sleep disorders (including R.M. Vaughan, as we’ll later see), David works to educate himself on the science behind his ailments. He learns about the drugs prescribed to him by his quack physician Becker, and what unfettered insomnia is doing to him psychologically. What he arrives at is the very architecture of sleep, and what role it plays in our ability or inability to function:
Now, bit by bit, he began to inform himself. He has been surprised at how little he has known about sleep given how much time he has spent at it, though even the experts, it turns out, don’t have much of a clue. One thing is for sure: it is infinitely more complex than David has imagined. He has always thought of sleep as a kind of zero to waking’s one, with the occasional dream thrown in like static, when it’s a place as varied and shifting and strange as the ocean floor, moving through permutations that have little to do with each other as with waking itself. REM and NREM; theta sleep and delta sleep; the alpha flatlines and jagged spindles and K-complex spikes that are like the creak and moan of the brain shutting the door to the outer world. Out of these a shape emerges that is called the architecture of sleep. As if sleep were an apartment building or boarding house, a warren of different rooms each with its own grizzled denizen keeping his own hours and his own rules, the wired dreamer in the attic, the plodding slow-wave oaf in the mouldering basement.
It becomes painfully apparent as the novel progresses that David cannot function, and his sleep disorders soon brings out the very worst in him. Julia learns of the near-crash on the highway that would have killed her son, and this becomes the catalyst for the divorce that has been looming for so long. David moves from their spacious, over-decorated house and into a cramped, soulless condo. He spends a small fortune on the divorce proceedings but it does no good: Julia cleans him out to the point of near-bankruptcy.
We also meet David’s family—a go-getting, successful brother who lives in the suburbs and their callous, manipulative mother. Much like in David’s marriage, his relationships with these people is almost devoid of even basic human kindness or acceptance. David soon comes to own a World War II-era handgun that belonged to his dead father, and this launches an unhealthy, America-style obsession with shooting and gun culture.
Things get even worse. In the wake of his divorce, David develops an inappropriate relationship with a potential new hire in his university department—a young female academic—and his tenured job is soon threatened when rumours spread that he used a date-rape drug on her one night in his condo.
He flees Toronto to take a visiting professorship at an unnamed college in the American Midwest, arranged by his friend Greg (whom David had stolen the idea for Masculine History from years earlier). But rather than showing gratitude for this granted reprieve, David promptly kindles an extramarital affair with Greg’s wife Sophie—one full of raunchy, masochistic sex. Greg inevitably learns the truth, and David flees once more—this time to some unnamed war-torn country in either the Middle East or Africa, where he looks to complete the research on his book about the collapse of civilization. But it is David’s own personal civilization, the infrastructures of his privileged life and tenuous relationships, that have crumbled to the point of no return, and the novel ends with a tense and violent scene of murder.
The allegorical arc of Sleep is clear. David’s descent into chaos is meant to mirror the collapse of ancient Roman culture that he has so assiduously committed his intellectual life to studying, and it makes for a steely-eyed and harrowing read. True, there are flaws along the way: besides the occasional lazy turn of phrase early in the book (things happen “in the blink of an eye”; David’s heart pounds “like a battering ram”), Ricci also fails to effectively weave David’s sleep disorders into the fabric of what befalls him later in the novel. His ailments trigger the blow-out with Julia, but aren’t kept centre stage enough as other calamities unfold. Still, despite David’s unsavoury attitudes and near-total lack of redeeming qualities, we become deeply invested in his story and follow it through to the bitter, brutal end.
If R.M. Vaughan has read Nino Ricci’s new novel, he probably recognizes a number of traits in the character of David Pace. But unlike David, Vaughan establishes himself immediately—at least for this reader—as a sympathetic character.
The man has suffered from insomnia for 40 years, basically since the age of 10. It sounds unimaginably dreadful. Bright Eyed is part confession and part genuine inquiry into the nature of insomnia. But whereas Ricci’s Sleep is concerned with the moral and psychological breakdown of one man, Vaughan attempts to amplify his own sleep disorder into a broader statement about society as a whole. He uses this book-length essay to argue that his individual situation is indicative of larger, nefarious forces stirring in our 24/7, work-till-you-drop culture.
To begin, Vaughan admits that he has tried to rewire his thinking around sleep, to stop seeing a lack of it as an accomplishment rather than a problem. Insomnia has become a cornerstone of his ego and self-obsession. In early adulthood, he attempted, as he puts it:
… to rewire my perception of myself as a person who did not sleep (as opposed to a person who could not sleep) … [I]nsomniacs can, and almost always do, develop a morbid attachment to their insomnia. We like to be asked how poorly, if at all, we have slept. We like our bodies and health to be a topic of discussion, to appear to others as fantastical creatures that can live without the sleep most mammals find absolutely necessary.
Vaughan talks of how the glamourization of sleeplessness is nothing new, that it dates back to at least the 19th century with instances of “Rabelaisian excess” and “Gothic potency” among artists of that era. Yet in the 21st century, Vaughan argues, a lack of sleep has taken on a frightening new origin—one involving the pressures we all feel to be endlessly productive, to be endlessly on, to be tethered to our technology, scanning our news feeds and answering our text messages, and, most distressingly, to be working ourselves to the bone all the time. In other words, the anxieties that arise from a hyper-capitalistic, technocratic society are the reason we do not as a culture value a good night’s sleep.
To help illustrate his point, Vaughan talks to a number of his friends about their own sleep habits. He shares with the reader a horrifying story from his friend “D”, who works for an international advertising agency with demanding clients scattered across several time zones. D basically describes a day from hell involving an early-morning flight for a commercial shoot in a different province after just a few hours of sleep, a long day on the set, a flight home, a night out at a concert, and, all the while, responding to his client’s text messages and emails that never stop coming. The story ends with D having to be carted away in an ambulance after collapsing onto the piss-stained bathroom floor at the concert venue. The sort of workday that D describes would not be unfamiliar to a whole raft of other professions: high-powered lawyers, international money market financiers, and business owners of every stripe. Vaughan’s concern, it seems, is that as technology and the fetishizing of work for its own sake creep more into our culture, these kinds of pressures will affect more and more of us.
But does such a theory hold up to rigorous scrutiny? Vaughan is to be commended for including a somewhat disastrous interview he conducted with best-selling novelist and visual artist Douglas Coupland after reading somewhere that Coupland often gets 12 (yes, 12!) hours of sleep a day. When Vaughan puts his hypothesis to Coupland, the man immediately confutes much of Vaughan’s position. Question after question, Coupland refuses to agree with what Vaughan is positing. He states that “sleep is sleep,” dating back hundreds of millions of years, and dismisses the idea that technology could have such a dominating position in our lives. (This, to be fair to Vaughan, struck me as a bit contradictory toward an essay that Coupland published in the U.K.’s Telegraph newspaper in 2014 called “I miss my pre-internet brain,” an axiomatic phrase that has since been printed on t-shirts.) The interview sputters out as Coupland gives no credence to Vaughan’s broader statements about sleep, saying “I can only speak for myself.”
This is Vaughan’s problem. He’s trying to speak for more than just himself, to deflect the “blame” for his own sleeplessness onto broader societal forces that stem from the profit-driven “system” we’re all trapped inside. It’s a curious position to take, considering that, by his own admission, Vaughan has been plagued with insomnia since the age of 10, before the tentacles of capitalistic necessity (and the internet) would have slithered into his life. Vaughan is insecure around and dismissive of any notion of self-improvement or personal accountability when it comes to his sleeplessness.
There are other issues, too. We can look the other way when he takes a petty swipe at psychiatrists, claiming, falsely, that they aren’t “real” doctors. (This view arises from a sexually abusive relationship Vaughan had with his own shrink, detailed in a previous book.) But it’s the wild, sweeping generalizations and nonsensical thinking that are hard to abide. He states that “[i]nsomniacs cannot also be true narcissists, because insomniacs are always in contest with themselves.” (What does this even mean?) He posits that “insomnia culture is the default pop culture” without offering a shred of evidence. He says that freelancers like himself are “the least protected” people in the labour force, a position that miners in rural China might take issue with. And he states that, among young people vying for their first jobs, the idea of having “hobbies” is an antiquated notion—to which I thought, Nope, nope, that’s not even remotely close to being true.
Worst of all, there is a section in which Vaughan talks about wanting to stroll late-night suburban streets full of sleepers and smash their windows. He hates us sleepers, our smugness, our “tidy health” and our “moronic conformity.” Alas, these are the bigoted and childish ramblings of someone who sees working for a living as beneath him. Much like with David Pace in Ricci’s novel, sleep disorders seem to drown out Vaughan’s better angels.
And yet as Bright Eyed goes on, we see just how open-minded and inquisitive Vaughan can be. He takes to educating himself on the science of sleeplessness, and interviews several researchers who have made it their life’s work to understanding insomnia. The section in which he talks to a sleep expert named Dr. Dang-Vu is especially engaging, as he allows him to speak in his own words, without Vaughan’s overarching cultural commentary. There is also a tremendous irony that Vaughan flags during these interviews with sleep scientists—one that helps buttress his problematic thesis. These researchers are all experts on the science of sleep, and yet none of them get the medically recommended amount of rest. They can’t. They’re too busy being Type A personalities, working hard to ascend to the top echelons of their chosen field. Perhaps there is some truth to what Vaughan has been saying all along.
Indeed, he ends his book with a rare moment of self-awareness.
I’m afraid that if I set aside my rage and frustration, I will never find a fix for my inability to sleep – and I’m keenly aware at the same time that rage and frustration keep me up at night.
Despite its flaws, Bright Eyed is a brave book, and I hope that Vaughan one day finds the solace he seeks.
If one is searching for solace from the exigencies of sleep—or at least a way to reveal the connection between our resting and our artistic lives—one should approach Sandra Huber’s Assembling the Morrow: A Poetics of Sleep with a certain amount of caution. Parodying a sleeping mind through experimental writing found its zenith in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, a tome that exposes the heightened ironies and bountiful syntax of the unconscious brain. Huber’s book, like Joyce’s before it, claims that the very nature of shut-eye is so complex, so mysterious, that it requires a level of experimental writing to even begin to unlock its secrets. Yet, after reading this 135-page hybrid of academic text and avant-garde poetry, what do we learn about sleep? What aspects of its landscape are elucidated by Huber’s experiment?
It’s a tricky needle to thread, as it soon becomes apparent that Huber is less interested in illumination and more interested in writing a dense, convoluted, exclusionary, pseudo-scientific treatise. It is often difficult, or impossible, to glean what she is driving at, or what her desired effects are, with the words she has placed on the page. One theory that, thankfully, does stand out is this notion of “islands of sleep”—that is, that a night’s rest is not typically one continuous plane of experience but rather broken up into a kind of ragged archipelago of sleep. I could identify with this argument; in fact, my sleep last night resembled almost exactly what she describes. What’s more, Huber mimics this notion of “islands of sleep” in the way her paragraphs are structured: they often break off (or trail off) before the next paragraph begins in mid-sentence. This helps to lend her writing a dream-like quality.
Unfortunately, this occurrence is not enough to nourish us. Much of the book’s lengthy introductory essay (67 tightly packed pages, including a six-page bibliography she has pretentiously labeled “Choir”) is written in a kind of grad-school pidgin designed to obscure rather than enlighten. Huber makes a number of curious decisions around punctuation, perhaps intending to show how “creative” she is but instead giving her prose a hurried, slapped-off feel. Mostly, though, it is the dense, inscrutable structures of her arguments that can often leave us feeling alienated. Here’s an example, picked almost at random:
The yin and yang between sleeping and waking is the further problem of SHY—the experiments put forth by the Italy-based research team headlined by Lino Nobili and that of Vladyslav V. Vyazovskiy, which names Cirelli and Tononi among its collaborators—suggesting the ever-present island of sleep in the wake and wake in the sleep. To come at it another way, the somnambulist is the problem in the SHY theory. The somnambulist that is the body both inside and outside of waking and sleeping, this body that is ever disruptive, especially to ontologies (sic) predicated on dualities.
One could be up all night attempting to parse what, if anything, that passage means.
Assembling the Morrow also comes with fold-out of some of (presumably) Huber’s poetry rendered into an actual sleep graph. This approach may have seemed original in concept but it reveals the—and please forgive the pun—overtired influences of Christian Bök upon execution. Huber’s work then ends with a section of some more “traditional” experimental poetry (if such a thing exists) broken up into subsections of REM sleep, Non-REM sleep, etc. These fragmented lines do possess a kind of quirky splendour: they read almost like an incantation, a ceremonial chant from the depths of unconsciousness:
she has things
i have t
i have time
i have time to wond
she has thing
i have time to
she has th
Again, the temptation to search here for “meaning” may leave a reader with an acute sense of alienation. It would be better to read this long poem—and indeed the entirety of Assembling the Morrow—as sheer sound, random and mindless, haunting and decidedly off-kilter in nearly every line. Only posterity will tell whether this book will one day awaken into something more.
Mark Sampson has published two novels, Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014), a short story collection, The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015), and a collection of poetry, Weathervane (Palimpsest Press, 2016). His stories, poems, reviews and essays have appeared in numerous journals throughout Canada and the United States. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.