“Hell is time, isn’t that obvious? Take your greatest pleasure or your greatest fantasy and let it come continuously true—for a day, a week, a year, a decade. And that’s hell.”
I picked up this book at my local Waterstones in an attempt to read some more contemporary science fiction novel, a genre I have completely neglected lately, although it was once one of my most favorites. The idea of the world in which most of the population suddenly lost the ability to sleep felt like a breath of fresh air I needed in my staleness of gritty crime novels and historical fiction. Seeing that it was shortlisted for Artur C. Clark Award and relatively good reviews online pushed me over the edge of buying it. However, I cannot say that this idea was executed rather well and that my thrist for good science fiction book was quenched.
The main character and narrator, Paul, is a writer, writing books on etymology, that is essentially on words. He is also a Sleeper, one of the rare people that can still sleep while the rest of the world spends night after night awake. His preocuppation with the secret meaning of words is visible throughout the novel, as he would stop mid narration and get side tracked by defining some obscure word. In fact, his narration and his character is the first and potentially the biggest flaw of this book. Paul does not really seem interested in trying to understand what is happening, but rather just passively goes along with all the events, This goes so far that in one of the most excruiating scenes in the book, in which his wife, who is psychotic from lack of sleep, is literally performing sexual activities on another man, he just passively watches it, as he gave up on her long ago. Instead, he constantly engages in some weird philosophical discussions with himself, which after a while become quite dull and frankly annoying. Paul is condescending and constantly treats himself as somehow better and more valuable that others.
His narration is not only not an advantage to the book, but in fact a huge disservice. The hollier-than-thou attitude he takes really hinders the reader’s understanding of other characters. He spends so much time dehumanizing and degrading his girlfriend, whom ends up as a very weak character, almost non-human, there only to somehow help him. The homeless man cum leader of a cult is just another crazy physchotic person because that is the opinion Paul has of him. Speaking of characters, the introduction of an adopted child did not make a lot of sense and it was not clear why this one child suddenly became so important to him, that he is willing to risk it all for her. Other characters are more there to introduce some sort of a concept that is soon abandoned because Paul simply could not be bothered with it. Overall, seen through Paul’s misantropic eyes, everyone else comes across as irrelevant, evil and unimportant.
While I can appreciate a good internal monologue and philosophical passages about humanity (after all, science fiction is a genre in which authors can do it most freely) it was overdone in Nod. The plot was practically non-existent and the pace of the novel was so confusing it was hard to understand the passing of time, even with chapters marked by days. In fact, it seems like every slightly interesting or signficant event was followed by a dreadfully pretensious observation by Paul. The deterioraion of society happens awfully fast, which is to be expected, but there was no explanations or hints as if why it happened. There was absolutely no theory on why some people can and others cannot sleep or why kids can sleep normally. Descriptions of kids roaming around in the forest while adults try to kill them read like scenes from horror books and were quite frankly distrurbing without adding to the novel in any way. Until the very end of this novel, I did not understand what happened, why and if there is some important message that the reader was supposed to read into it. It seems to me that this book needed a couple of extra rounds with the editors before being published. I do not think that the author should be pandering to their audience and explain every detail, but I do think that there should be some basic rules that govern the events and characters. I am really curious to know what you think about this, how much should authors explain in their works? If you have read Nod, what is your opinion about how effective world building was in this book?
Overall, the choice of narrator is what frankly ruined this book for me. Paul quite frankly sounds like one of those annoying people who loves the sound of his own voice a bit too much to ever really listen, but rather simply waits for their turn to speak. He does not explain or guide properly and it looks like he is trying to explain to his future readers just how smart he is and how crazy everyone around him are. At the end of the day, the world Barnes created in this book simply does not work. It is just a scary, terrible world where hords of sleepless people are quite literally waiting for their death. The only emotion throughout the book is dread and the view of humanity is bleak with no opportunity for redemption. While it is true that anarchy does bring out the worst in people, it also bring out the best. The impression from this book is that the humanity is maybe not even worth saving if it will act like characters in the book.
Unfortunately, for me this is one of the most painful things that can happen in a literary world-an interesting idea poorly executed. The book is highly underwhelming with so many opportunies wasted that reading it is actually frustrating. At the end, I cannot find any reedeming qualities in the book further from the interesting idea. As usual with this situation, I would love to read another book with the same or similiar idea, as I believe it has gone to waste in Nod. If you can think of such a book, feel free to leave it in the comments.
With all that said, judging from other reviews, it seems like Nod is quite a divisive book, as it has many positive scores on different websites, whose authors found many qualities in it I simply did not. Is there something that I have missed in this book that could have changed my opinion about it, especially in terms of its meaning and the overall purpose?