Bad moon on the rise

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­orge Wil­liams

Black Moon By Kenneth Cal­houn Hog­a­rth, 288pp, $24.99 Sleep Do­na­tion By Karen Rus­sell Atavist Books, ebook, $US3.99 BLACK Moon and Sleep Do­na­tion of­fer un­com­fort­able bed­time read­ing. Each asks what might hap­pen if the world were en­gulfed by an epi­demic of in­som­nia.

Amer­i­can writer Kenneth Cal­houn, in his de­but novel, fo­cuses on the lives of people strug­gling to deal with the un­ex­plained change, which has ren­dered al­most ev­ery­one un­able to sleep. The ef­fects are de­scribed in some­times hor­rific de­tail, as or­di­nary people are trans­formed by days of ex­haus­tion into a deliri­ous, in­com­pe­tent state.

Once the in­som­nia reaches its fi­nal stages, people are un­able to func­tion or com­mu­ni­cate. So­ci­ety soon breaks down, and in­som­ni­acs are left to wan­der their for­mer homes and neigh­bour­hoods in a grotesque, an­i­mal-like ex­is­tence. The in­som­ni­acs are far from be­nign. The sight of an­other per­son sleep­ing pro­duces a ‘‘grotesque mu­ta­tion of re­sent­ment’’ that trig­gers a pri­mal rage. They sleep­less be­come mind­less zom­bies, with no goal other than to de­stroy the ob­ject of their ha­tred.

Black Moon is an atyp­i­cal vi­sion of the apoca­lypse. Ma­jor ques­tions are left unan­swered, such as what brought on the change, and what the fu­ture might hold for hu­man­ity. Many spec­u­late about the causes of the phe­nom­ena, but no one gets fur­ther than the ob­ser­va­tion of one char­ac­ter that ‘‘a black moon had risen, a sphere of sleep­less­ness that pulled at the tides of blood — an in­vis­i­ble ex­pla­na­tion for the mad­ness welling in­side’’.

The book leaves loose ends, and lacks any firm sense of res­o­lu­tion, but this is part of the au­thor’s de­sign. This is not a plot-driven book. Char­ac­ters some­times me­an­der aim­lessly, in­clud­ing in scenes in which the au­thor uses hu­mour and their bizarre be­hav­iour to great ef­fect. Cal­houn’s story is as much about a break­down in re­al­ity as a plague of in­som­nia. Themes and threads of ideas run through­out the book that chal­lenge the reader’s per­cep­tion of the world.

The in­som­ni­acs en­ter into a state of delir­ium not un­like a wak­ing dream. The au­thor com­mu­ni­cates this through stretches of gib­ber­ish that are un­nerv­ing in the way they draw the reader into the ex­pe­ri­ence. As Cal­houn says, it is as if their world has ‘‘been turned in­side out’’. The sleep­less have en­tered a state in which ev­ery­thing gets mixed to­gether, present, dreams and mem­o­ries’’.

Black Moon res­onates with sto­ries and dreams, and the frag­ile bound­aries be­tween the sleep­ing and wak­ing worlds. This is best told through the story of the main char­ac­ter, Matt Biggs, who re­flects on the fact that his re­la­tion­ship with his wife be­gan af­ter she fea­tured in a vivid dream. As the world dis­in­te­grates, Biggs finds it in­creas­ingly hard to dis­tin­guish be­tween the real world and his false vi­sions of it.

The book is told through the eyes of four main char­ac­ters. None is a pow­er­ful per­son in the sense of un­der­stand­ing the causes of the epi­demic, or how to fix it. Each must sim­ply do what they can to cope and sur­vive, which of­ten in­volves a fruit­less search for loved ones.

Black Moon is an am­bi­tious work that suc­ceeds in pro­vid­ing a rich and thought­ful ac­count of events that would shat­ter hu­man­ity. It stands apart from works that take a more straight­for­ward path to the end of the world.

Sleep Do­na­tion is far less grim, and far less am­bi­tious. Karen Rus­sell’s fo­cus is not on those suf­fer­ing in­som­nia, but on those try­ing to help them. In her world, the vic­tims of in­som­nia can be treated, and some­times cured by a trans­fu­sion of sleep from a healthy donor.

The trans­fer is fa­cil­i­tated by a seem­ingly al­tru­is­tic non-govern­ment or­gan­i­sa­tion that solic­its do­na­tions from the com­mu­nity. As with any good cause, the trick lies in en­tic­ing people to give. It is here that the key fig­ure in the novella, Tr­ish Edge­wa­ter, comes in. Tr­ish has more suc­cess than any­one else in en­tic­ing people to do­nate their sleep. She suc­ceeds be­cause of her will­ing­ness to trade upon the story of her

‘‘the past and sis­ter’s death from in­som­nia. This cre­ates a strong emo­tional bond that makes even the most re­luc­tant will­ing to con­sider donat­ing.

But not ev­ery­one is wel­come to con­trib­ute. The sleep of many people is con­tam­i­nated by night­mares and unso­cia­ble thoughts, so the hunt is on for people with the purest dreams. Tr­ish hits the jack­pot when she re­cruits baby A, a new­born who as a uni­ver­sal donor is able to pass on her sleep to any other per­son.

As is im­me­di­ately clear, the idea of sleep do­na­tion has been grafted on to that of donat­ing blood. The sleep-do­na­tion in­dus­try even comes with its own sleep van, which trav­els to people’s homes to col­lect their dreams, by way of a spe­cial sil­ver hel­met.

Tr­ish be­gins the book as an ide­al­ist, but is soon chal­lenged. She must bat­tle against the re­luc­tance of baby A’s fa­ther to the har­vest­ing of the sleep of his young daugh­ter. This and other is­sues raise ma­jor eth­i­cal ques­tions.

Mat­ters take a sharp turn when the sleep bank be­comes con­tam­i­nated by a donor who fails to re­veal he is suf­fer­ing from a par­tic­u­larly vir­u­lent, recurring nightmare. The trans­mis­sion of his fevered imag­in­ings re­sults in a cri­sis of con­fi­dence by Tr­ish and oth­ers.

Rus­sell is one of the hot, young Amer­i­can writ­ers, a Pulitzer Prize fi­nal­ist for her 2012 novel Swamp­lan­dia! Sleep Do­na­tion is well told and easy to fol­low. It is not an es­pe­cially orig­i­nal work, but its lighter touch is a wel­come re­lief af­ter the dark­ness of Black Moon. Black Moon Sleep Do­na­tion

and deal with the apoc­a­lyp­tic con­se­quences of a world with­out sleep

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