Bad moon on the rise
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