SLEEP­LESS IN THE CITY

India Today - - LEISURE - —Divya Dubey

Insomniac City by Bill Hayes is the story of two love af­fairs run­ning on par­al­lel tracks. The first fo­cuses on the au­thor and the dis­tin­guished neu­rol­o­gist, Oliver Sacks, the ob­ject of his af­fec­tions, and the sec­ond is the love af­fair be­tween him and New York City. Hayes is al­most fifty when the book be­gins—with the death of Steve, his part­ner. Steve died of a heart at­tack, iron­i­cally, on a day when the ‘insomniac’ Hayes was asleep. Un­able to bear the heartache, Hayes moves from San Fran­cisco to New York City, where he meets and falls in love with Sacks, a man thirty years his se­nior, who has ‘no knowl­edge of pop­u­lar cul­ture af­ter 1955’ and ‘zero in­ter­est in celebri­ties or fame’ (to the point of ask­ing ‘what is Michael Jack­son?’)

Sacks is well known to read­ers as the au­thor of books deal­ing with psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­or­ders, in­clud­ing The Man Who Mis­took His

Wife for a Hat. But his unique per­son­al­ity comes across through Hayes’ pre­cise, sim­ple de­scrip­tions and the lovers’ con­ver­sa­tions. ‘Are you con­scious of your thoughts be­fore lan­guage em­bod­ies them?’ Sacks asks. ‘I like hav­ing a con­fu­sion of agency, your hand on top of mine, un­sure where my body ends and yours be­gins,’ he con­fesses in a rare erotic mo­ment.

The magic of Hayes’ writ­ing lies in its min­i­mal­ist yet evoca­tive images. As Sacks’ health de­te­ri­o­rates, the mod­est, self-ef­fac­ing Hayes fo­cuses so deeply on his part­ner’s mis­ery that it’s easy to for­get it’s a trauma for him, too. There is ten­der­ness with­out sen­ti­men­tal­ity, ac­cep­tance of what can­not be al­tered and a strong pos­i­tive at­ti­tude that em­braces life in its en­tirety. This book is not only a fas­ci­nat­ing ode to ro­man­tic love, but also a pro­found re­flec­tion on life and death. The lit­tle ‘vi­gnettes’ are meant to be en­joyed slowly and grad­u­ally as sips of fine wine rather than in a sin­gle gulp.

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