Nod by Adrian Barnes (Review)

How long do you think you could stay awake before you went mad, or died? It’s probably not as long as you think. About twenty-five days. Adrian Barnes takes us through the grim lead up to this untimely end in his 2012 debut, Nod. A harsh critique of modern life, told through a simple but effective concept. Nobody can sleep. Well, almost nobody. Paul is a sleeper and each night he escapes into a recurring dream. The only sliver of hope left in this new world.

We join Paul on day eighteen. There are a few like him, mostly children. Nobody knows why and, as a reader, we never find out. It’s not important. The significance of this novel lies in its depiction of this new world and its comparison to the old one. Standing on his balcony, Paul describes a world in which ‘it’s getting harder to tell the living from the dead’. Then he takes us back to the beginning of the whole mess. What follows is a beautifully crafted study in human nature, framed by our descent into madness as sleep psychosis begins to take hold.

The first time I read Nod, I enjoyed the journey with Paul, his wife Tanya, and Zoe, the mute child that they rescue along the way. Barnes draws us into his struggle by addressing us directly. Joking with us about his situation; when Tanya scolds him, saying ‘this isn’t a game Paul, this isn’t just another one of your stupid books’, he looks to us and says, ‘she was wrong about that of course.’

Through this technique, we become like Paul. An outsider, looking in on this new reality. We share in his moral superiority because, like him, we still have our sanity. We trudge along with the hapless party. Through their interactions with a new breed of religious fanatics headed by the Admiral of the Blue. All the way to the bitter conclusion of the land of Nod.

I stumbled through that first reading with my ‘flopping head, lolling tongue and corkscrewed mouth’, arriving at the end feeling that I had missed something. The pop culture references that littered the novel had some relevance I was sure. A flicker of what Barnes was trying to say lurked somewhere in the back of my mind but it didn’t take shape until I entered the land of Nod for a second time.

At first glance, Nod is a world away from our own reality. But take a closer look and you might find that ‘maybe nothing ever changed’. It is the logical conclusion of a culture of meaningless distraction that Adrian Barnes resents so much. In his eyes, we are already there. We float along ‘gobbling down burgers from our lap’, ‘all of our faces fixed on the same goal of semi-oblivion through satiation.’ Through these criticisms, I began to get a sense of Paul’s self-righteous attitude and realised it was a reflection of the author himself.

Intellectualism has been increasingly pushed aside and Barnes sees himself as a victim of this. You need only look at the current political landscape; based on social media soundbites and cartoon characters rather than well researched arguments. ‘We weren’t a species interested in facts as such. We were more into evading or spinning them.’

Nod is his bitter reaction to the situation. Paul is struggling to gain traction with his books about the origins of language but nobody is interested. Barnes’ pessimistic attitude is apparent when Paul’s book is taken from him and used as the basis for a religious cult, taking away any intellectual value it once had.

Like Paul, Barnes has not earned the recognition that he so desperately deserves. He doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia page. He was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke award in 2013 but fell short. The authors hope of gaining the respect that he so clearly feels entitled to are slim in light of his current situation.

He was diagnosed with terminal cancer about six months before publishing the novel. The 2015 edition of Nod includes an essay, titled My Cancer is as Strange as my Fiction. He talks about the similarities between his life and Paul’s;

‘I began to see the end of everything. I was going to slowly lose the people I love, as did Paul. Insomnia made the world insane to Paul just as my damaged brain has made the world insane to me. And this is only the beginning of the weird similarities’.

He goes on to say that even before he started writing, he ‘often cursed the real world, with its greed and hatred and lack of love’.  One of the most fascinating things about this is that Barnes finished his first draft of the book ‘a whole year’ before he fell ill. In Nod, he had created an experience that was so evocative that when their darkest hour came, he and Paul mirrored one another. It could even be called a premonition, after all, Barnes comments that both he and Paul sought help in the same Vancouver hospital.

You may notice that I have made no reference to Barnes’ other work. That is because, until I was halfway through writing this, I didn’t know it existed. In fact, I thought that he was dead. He fell victim to our lack of interest in facts or integrity. After first reading Nod, I googled his name and found an article. A tragic narrative of a man who had written a novel in his dying days, surviving just long enough to see it published. I only realised very recently that this wasn’t true. But it made a better story I suppose. It got more hits. His tragic tale had become nothing more than the ‘cultural snuff porn’ that he criticizes in his novel.

In the midst of his battle with cancer, Barnes did in fact release another novel.  The 2015 release, Satan a la mode, is likely to be his last. It is a great shame that we will not have the chance to hear more from him; If his debut was this accomplished, who knows what he could have produced had he been given the benefit of a lengthy writing career.

Nod – Adrian Barnes (Blue Moose Books, 31st October 2012)