Sleep, by Nino Ricci, Doubleday Canada, Toronto, 2015, 235 pages, HB, $30
Nino Ricci is a serious novelist, among the most skilled Canada has. He chooses substantial things to write about, does his research, writes sentences that are clear and muscular, doesn’t seem to have a trace of the woo-woo airheadedness that infects so many Canadian novelists, and he appears to be immune to the moral music of stampeding cattle.
That’s why I was more than a little surprised when his latest novel, Sleep, failed to make the shortlist for any of Canada’s now-numerous book prizes during the 2015 prize jamboree. Every other book he’s written has been knee-deep in prize nominations and awards. Both Lives of the Saints (1990) and The Origin of Species (2002) took the GG, and I thought that his least-feted title, Testament (2008), an intelligent and moving fictional account of the life of Jesus Christ, should have won every prize in the country.
I’ve made an effort over the years to read at least a few of the novels that get shortlisted for the Giller and GG fiction prizes, and generally, it hasn’t been an uplifting task. Canadian book juries in 2016 are, first of all, as much about marketing commodities as they are about literature. Their ostensible industrial job is to uncover and select the most smoothly-written, culturally “significant” and sellable fiction published by Canadian authors during the given market year, which is roughly October to October. The jury priorities, theoretically, go in the order I’ve listed them, with the GG juries also charged with the added responsibility of ensuring regional, gender and erotic choice representation while supporting “diversity.” In the real world, their job is much more complicated, and most years, the juries seem to choose the winning fiction for its cultural topicality, literary conventionality, and saleability at Chapters/Indigo—in roughly that order, occasionally at a moderate cost to the English language and my sanity.
Except when Kim Thuy’s Ru gained a Giller nomination after winning the French language GG the year before, and except for 2015’s exceptionally smart and readable Giller winner Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis, reading these books has been pretty rough slogging, although the deepest depths were plumbed in 2010 when Johanna Skibsrud submitted her creative writing MA thesis, with a narrator who thought that supermarket Musak was there to make her happy and the overly bright lighting there to help her read the product labels—and won the Giller Prize for it. Prize-winning novels in this country tend to plod rather earnestly, or succeed on the basis of virtues that occasionally have little to do with good writing or original thinking. As a result, I’ve come to think of Canadian fiction prizes, particularly the Giller, as prizes for conventional behavior, which explains why Nino Ricci has had less Giller success than with other avenues of acclaim. But this season’s complete shut-out of Sleep made me curious enough to buy and read it for that alone. What had Ricci done with it to turn the juries off?
It’s worth pointing out that Ricci is a serious writer in a more literal way, too. None of his novels are what you’d call light-hearted, and even in person, his sense of humour isn’t among the first things of note. He’s a serious human being, and everything about him, from his personality to his writing, reflects that.
Sleep is, let’s be clear, a well-written book, and the research that grounds it—mainly into ADHD and sleep-disorder pharmacology and hand-gun technology, is impeccable. It’s protagonist, David Pace, is an academic who gained early-career acclaim—and notoriety—with a ground-breaking piece of gender politics-inflected social history, but has been spiraling downward since, both career-wise and personally, at least in part because he suffers from a form of narcolepsy.
As the novel begins, Pace, who has been hiding the onset symptoms of his narcolepsy from his wife, falls asleep while driving with his son in the back seat, an act he recognizes the danger of but hides from his wife anyway because if he admits to it, it will cost him his driver’s licence and some degree of lifestyle mobility. The scene is drawn with exquisite—and horrifying—effectiveness, because it reveals, in a half-dozen paragraphs, the protagonist’s full character and its limitations, which he will not, in the course of the novel, manage to transcend or transform. David Pace chooses instead to blame everyone and everything in his life for his difficulties, including his son, and to deploy a pharmacology that forever ratchets upward to greater extremes (and levels of poisonousness) in order to maintain a façade of functionality if not quite normality.
And herein lies the problem with the entire novel: its protagonist is, to put it bluntly, an asshole. Not a misunderstood or endearingly eccentric one, but an unremittingly self-involved, self-aggrandising, self-deludingly unappealing asshole without either the intellectual or emotional tools or inclination to rescue himself. The novel is, in a sense, one long toilet flush: the water goes round and round; along the way there are occasional sparkles of light and many more moments of dark, sludgy substances moving in the currents. But all of it goes unrelentingly down and down, and Pace’s character drops lower and lower in the scale of human behaviors until, well, you don’t want to know how and where it ends.
I can think of no other protagonist in Canada’s literature that has fewer redeeming character traits than David Pace. Worse, he is an asshole surrounded by other assholes. There is, in fact, no character anywhere in the novel who isn’t an asshole: not Pace’s estranged wife, or the son he can’t quite overcome himself to reach out to, not his estranged best friend, a fellow academic who spends his time creating virtual S&M dungeons and inhabiting them; not the EBF’s wife, who Pace has an erotically brutal affair with. All of Pace’s academic colleagues are as corrupted and cynical as he is, his father was a brute, his mother a manipulator, his twin brother a suburban hoser-poser. If there’s a decent human being anywhere in Sleep, it’s the five-year-old son of a security guard Pace manages to get killed in the book’s last chapter. We only glimpse the boy for a moment, so I’m not even sure about that…
Don’t get me wrong. There are passages of powerful writing in Sleep, and not just a few of them. The writing is good enough that it keeps your eye on the page even while your gorge is rising, literally and metaphorically.
One brilliantly executed passage, after Pace rescues an ancient (and loaded) Baretta pistol his mother had given to his son and nephews to play with, and which Pace takes home with the promise that he will turn it in, finds him, late at night, driving through an in-progress landfill out on Toronto’s harbour lands with the pistol on the car seat beside him. Will he shoot himself—deliberately or by accident? Will he shoot someone—or something–else? The only certainty here, as everywhere else in Sleep, is that David Pace will do the wrong thing.
Now, the obvious hook of Sleep—the thing that keeps you reading—is that David Pace might, at any moment, do the right thing: he might learn something on his own, God might wheel down on a mechanized platform and clout him, Zen-style, across the ear; a good woman’s (or a good one-legged she-male’s) love might elevate him or parental or fraternal love might claim him from the cosmic toilet bowl Ricci has him swirling around and down in.
None of these appear, and there is no redemption for David Pace. The water goes round and round and down the toilet bowl of contemporary life, with Pace in it, whining unconvincingly, and eventually there’s that gulping sound as the brown stuff reaches bottom and is gone. I’m giving you this plot summary because I’m angry about what Nino Ricci has done with this book, and here’s why: we don’t need literature to tell us how shitty the world can be. We have everyday life for that.
I’m not sure what Ricci thought he was doing with Sleep. Is it a satire of 21st century academic life? Perhaps. But isn’t satire a fundamentally comic mode of social criticism? There isn’t a single laugh anywhere in Sleep. It is unremittingly gloom, human degradation and interpersonal perversity, treachery and slime. An expose, then? Sure, but shouldn’t it then present at least a couple of alternatives to dogs trying to bite off one another’s privates?
An interview Ricci did with Globe and Mail books editor Mark Medley when the book was released offers a hint of what Ricci may have intended. Medley reports that “he [Ricci] kept thinking of Franz Kafka, who once remarked, ‘We ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading it for?’”
There’s at least twenty or thirty other things we read books for, but let’s ignore that. What we shouldn’t ignore is that Kafka didn’t say any such thing, certainly not in English, and the German language isn’t capable of that vulgar a formulation.
Medley’s interview also revealed that part of the novel’s ground is that Ricci suffers from a version of the same sleep disorder his central character has, although obviously with profoundly different global consequences for Ricci. Here, possibly, is an explanation for what goes wrong in Sleep. The inherently pharmacological underpinning of Pace’s unstable sense of reality becomes oddly invisible to the reader—just as it is to Pace himself. Tellingly, one learns more about drugs than about sleep. It also seems like a major flaw in the narrative, that the drug regimen that Ricci has successfully used to stabilize himself fails utterly for his protagonist and becomes a device merely to prolong the toilet flush that is the narrative trajectory of the novel. This is a writer going against his own experience, which makes me wonder if its possible that Ricci lost sight of the pharmacology because in the real world it wasn’t doing to him what he’s making it do to his protagonist. Why that drug regimen fails for Pace isn’t clear, except that this is ultimately Ricci’s choice, and it is one that goes against his own experience.
There’s a more simple explanation. Maybe Ricci has had an attack of Cormac McCarthy, and Sleep is Ricci’s homage–The Road: Academia. Or, more simple still, this is just a fuckup novel, of which every good writer is entitled to one or two. Maybe we’ll just has to wait for the next one, which, given Ricci’s wealth of talent, will probably be terrific.
I guess part of my point in all this, and a part I don’t want to admit to, is that Sleep wouldn’t be so demoralizing if Nino Ricci wasn’t a good writer, and a man more than smart enough to recognize that realism, however conceived, is ultimately just disguised ideology. What remains curious is that something disabled Ricci’s commercial common sense, which should have told him that no prize jury would reward this degree of moral ambivalence. The market for Canadian novels, moribund as it may be, just isn’t about to allow this degree of gloomy nihilism, if for no other reason than that Heather Reisman isn’t going to select a book like Sleep as one of her favourites.
And perhaps I’m simply annoyed with Ricci for having put me in the company of David Pace for the hours I spent reading Sleep. In the real world, I’d have run over Pace with my car well before I was done reading about him in the good will of readership. That’s something that no writer ought to abuse the way Ricci has with Sleep.
2000 words, February 14, 2016