It is one of the most common activities we do. It is one of the most important functions we need to do everyday. And it is something we all have had trouble doing at times. So what happens when it completely fails a person? Nino Ricci examines that notion in his novel Sleep.
He feels the dull throb of a headache beginning from the spike in his medication. For the next few hours, his heart will pound like a battering ram. He takes advantage of the stalled traffic to gather up the pills still scattered on the seat next to him: stupid to have let Marcus see them, to risk his mentioning them. Right from the start David has kept Julia in the dark, has passed the blame for his symptoms onto insomnia, late nights, overwork, has hidden from her the doctors’ visits, the clinics, the pills. that is his default with her now: to hide any sign of weakness, anything that might give her ammunition.
His mind keeps circling back to the instant when the crash felt inevitable, trying to sort out what saved them, though already it is hard to say how much is real in what he remembers and how much is the illogic of whatever dream he had slipped into. A deep brain disorder. That was how Becker put it, his sleep doctor, a fleshy Afrikaner with the hectoring twang of an apartheid politician and the parboiled look of a village butcher. A bread down in the border that separated waking from sleep. As if sleep were some rebel force that David had let overrun him, leaving him condemned now to live in this place of constant incursion, where nothing was safe, nothing was certain.
Ricci has either put a lot of a lot of research into the condition of his protagonist David Pace or he is quite familiar personally with the circumstances of insomnia. Whatever the case may be, he has documented an important element of the human condition in this book. Readers could be easily reading about themselves as they follow Pace go from a successful academic and family man meltdown to a slave to his emotions and medications.
This was something David hadn’t reckoned on going into the divorce, how much it would cost him. Even though hew as told by everyone who card to offer an opinion that divorce was a fight in which there were no winners except the lawyers, still he forged ahead and committed every error, animated by what in retrospect seems to have been a kind of derangement. He wasted a lot of money up front on idiocies, taking his lawyer’s advice that he not move out of the house because it would prejudice his claim to Marcus but then paying for an office downtown to have a place away from his students to work and maxing out his credit cards on restaurant meals and dry cleaning and hotel stays. Then right from the start Julia’s father had got into the act, calling in chits from every quarter to make sure Julia was properly lawyered. Almost weekly, David was served with some new motion or disclosure order. The worst was the forensic accountant her father set on him, who made his every smallest excess seem to sigh of a criminal profligacy.
If David had been smart he would have accepted from the start how outgunned he was. Instead, with each setback he dug in his heels, firing lawyers and hiring new ones, firing those and representing himself, somehow convinced at each stage that if he fought hard enough it would prove he was in the right. One by one, the judgements went against him. He was forced to move out of the house, was left on the hook for both child and spousal support, was assessed a big whack of Julia’s legal fees because motions of his own that the court deemed frivolous. Through a couple of loopholes Julia’s lawyers even managed to get almost the entire value of his condo thrown in as common property, though he’d had it for years before the marriage, so that when the final balance sheet came in, what Julia ended up owing him for his share of the house – the house she had insisted on, on which she had indulged her every whim, that had cost him every penny he had earned from his books – had barely been enough to cover his legal bills.
There is an uncomfortable truth in this book. We have all witnessed someone self destruct in a slow and methodical manner and ask ourselves ‘What are they thinking?’ Here, at least, we can actually enter the mind of David Pace and get a glimmer of his thought patterns.
He is running on pure bravado now, without a plan, at once desperate to keep her here and wishing she’d go, and so spare them the aftermath of whatever train wreck it is they are headed for. Her puking into his toilet or passing out on his couch; him nodding off in mid-sentence or suddenly spazzing out in one of his fits. Or worse, the two of them falling into bed and fucking in some pale simulacrum of what he has imagined, both of them blunted with wine and him fighting the whole time to stay hard. By now he can no longer ignore the small dark bead of self-destructiveness in her, reassuring, in a way, something that joins them, yet also setting off every alarm, like a siren call to his most depraved under-selves. Like permission.
“You?” he says. “Any marriages yet? Lesbian hook-ups? Psycho-killer ex-lovers?”
Her laugh, a bit too ready now, too compliant.
“Nothing that exciting, sorry to say. Just your typical boring academic.”
Barely a foot and a half of couch separates them at this point, Jennifer still in her lotus squat though growing more and more askew, now her hem riding up, now some kink making her shift a butt cheek or thigh. Meanwhile the wine wears away at his brain, blurring its borders. He sees himself lean in to her to take her wrists, slender as a child’s. Sees her pinned beneath him as he thrusts.
She reaches to the coffee table for another cigarette.
“You must want to quit. I mean, after your father.”
“Quit?” he has no memory of mentioning his father. “But I’m just getting started.”
He gets up to empty the ashtray so he can pop another IR. If he isn’t careful, he will lose it. If he isn’t careful, he’ll slide into some twilight self like a Jekyll and Hyde.
While Sleep by Nino Ricci is not the type of novel you want to read while trying to drift away with at night, it is the type of book that will keep your mind pondering for lengths at a time as you try to rest. It is a book that engages the imagination and creates discussion.