Going to sleep has always seemed a little bit like magic. You can’t make yourself do it; the harder you try, the less likely you’ll be able to tumble into slumber. It just has to happen. The magic of that inexplicable moment is why Adrian Barnes’ Nod is the creepiest book I’ve read this year. Set in Vancouver, Canada, but chronicling a very frightening worldwide apocalypse, Nod takes advantage of a fear you maybe didn’t even know you had: the fear that one night, for no reason, your body might forget how to go to sleep.
In Nod, everyone forgets how to go to sleep. Well, nearly everyone: Perhaps 1 in 10,000 human beings manages to sleep at night, while the rest of humanity descends into chaos and madness with terrifying speed. I talked to Barnes about the medical understanding of chronic sleeplessness, the world inside dreams, and how his cancer taught him that insomnia’s actually not the end of the world.
So what happens to someone who gets no sleep at all? What’s the general timeline of degradation?
Well, my own experience indicates that humans get grumpy after two nights. Beyond that, my reading indicates that we become insane and have hallucinations after one week. Scientists are guessing when they suggest that we will die after 30 days. There are no volunteers to find out!
Did you speak with experts or do specific research on the effects of constant insomnia?
I read a little but found no proper answer. But it’s a massive metaphor—unsleeping is our lives! I felt it was a perfect way of examining the modern world.
What do you mean by that?
I feel like we think we see “reality,” but we mostly see a sort of madness. And so the “insomnia” is a neat little metaphor for that concept. Obviously, the modern world is just insanely overloaded and we can’t really process it all.
Even as our hero Paul manages to sleep—one of the few—the world of the book gets more and more dreamlike, with characters behaving in unexpected ways and surprising developments occurring out of the blue. What do you think dream logic has in common with the plot of a novel?
I am currently working on my new novel, Pod, which goes directly into that question. Overall, I have three novels planned to tell Paul’s whole story and to express all my thoughts on these questions. The third is called God. Nod, Pod, God.
I am fascinated by consciousness and dreams. No doubt dreams are massively more exciting and interesting than conscious life. When I’m awake, I think my dreams are more real and powerful than what I see around me. Well, in Pod, the dreams simply take over. Good dreams, of course, and evil ones.
When I wrote Nod I was consciously trying to create characters and events that exist beyond my own consciousness—I’d invent people and places that are bizarre and then try to force them into my novel. Oddly, I’ve been thinking like this since I was a teen, when I used to try to find poems beyond the real world. Then I’d try to write them back home to our world. Lord, that sounds weird!
A little! But there is a long tradition of artists discovering images, characters, and plots in “other worlds,” whether dreams or altered states. Are there other books or stories that feel particularly otherworldly to you?
Well, inevitably I go to four loves of mine: Lewis Carroll, Harlan Ellison, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan. A weird set of choices, I know. All four of those artists changed my view of the world. And there’s a pattern between them all: Dylan and Lennon both aspired to Alice in Wonderland in trying to write their own books (Tarantula by Dylan and In His Own Write by Lennon), and Harlan is a massive Alice man.
Children seem to have a different response to the crisis in Nod than adults do. How do you think children experience sleep, and how does it differ from adults’ experience?
I think children are more comfortable with dreams than realities. In fact, they often scowl at reality—things like school and parental rules. Good for them, I say. My favorite book is Alice in Wonderland, a story children have always loved—they feel like Alice themselves. I see children as more sane than adults. Adults are going insane by trying to insist on the limits of what we see around us.
Sleep deficits seem to be something of an invisible crisis for many people: teenagers who have to get up crazily early for school, new parents trying to return to work with a crying baby keeping them up at nights, people in jobs as blue-collar as trucking and as white-collar as medicine working long shifts and endangering others. Do you think we as a society undervalue sleep?
God, yes. There’s a kind of rest that comes from letting the brain go loose, freed from “reality.” We simply don’t value sleep any more. Or at least 99 percent of us don’t. Sleeping is how we survive, literally. The human survival list is “must drink water, must sleep at night, must eat food.” In that order! But we forget about the middle one.
You’ve said you had the idea for Nod because you yourself are an insomniac. How does that affect your life?
Sleeplessness shows me more reality, odd though that sounds. I remember snow coming down late at night when I was 8 years old and couldn’t sleep. I’d be standing on my bed and watching flakes fall slowly late at night. Eventually, of course, my mom would check on me and say, “Go to sleep!” And other times, she’d say, “Wake up!” I began to wonder about the world my parents claimed to be real.
More recently, I was found to have a really deadly cancer. It grows and spreads in my skull—a real terror with a tumor the size of a plum. Attached to it are little “worms” growing from the main tumor and spreading across my skull. Over the last year my skull was chopped, my brain lumps were chopped out, and I was drugged and radiated month after month. So since I wrote Nod I have learned a lot more about the “real” universe and lack of sleep.
And the good news it is that it turns out insomnia is not bad at all. I now see the whole universe, having lost the old world. And it’s so beautiful. I now tend to say my cancer is a blessing. If nothing else, these experiences will help me from the lies around us. I’m very grateful for it.
Read more from The Drift, Slate's pop-up blog about sleep.