In the years following 2008’s The Origin of Species, a sprawling examination of Trudeau-era Montreal and Darwinian evolution (two solitudes that are not, the author proves, as distinct as they might at first appear), Ricci settled down to tackle his next work of fiction, which he determined would be something he could bang out expeditiously. “That’s what I thought six years ago,” Ricci says. “So, that didn’t happen.”
One reason for the delay is that Sleep (publishing in September with Doubleday Canada) is not the novel Ricci originally intended to write. He had planned to embark on a piece of writing set in the future that would complete a loose trilogy with Origin and the preceding novel, a retelling of the story of Jesus of Nazareth called Testament (2002).
If those seem like disparate subjects for a trilogy, don’t tell the author. “I could argue every book has been a departure,” says Ricci of his collected output thus far, “but also that every book has been part of a big framework in my head where they all have clear inner connections.” He calls Origin “the natural follower to Testament,” in the sense that Jesus and Darwin were both towering figures who reoriented the way humanity thinks of itself and the world, in the process becoming touchstones for Western culture and thought. “And the way in which we envision the future and talk about the future, short and long term, is totally Darwinian.”
Despite the submerged evolutionary connections among the three novels, Ricci ultimately decided that the third of the group (which he may still return to at some later point) was not working the way he wanted it to, so he abandoned it in favour of a novel about a successful academic and family man whose apparently happy life begins coming apart at the seams when he discovers that he can’t sleep.
Like all Ricci’s work, Sleep was the result of a combination of influences, one of them in this instance hitting particularly close to home. Following the publication of Origin, Ricci was himself diagnosed with a sleep disorder. This started the author along the path of thinking about the nature of sleep, which, similar to breathing, is a bodily function most people don’t tend to contemplate until their ability to do it is impeded.
One thing Ricci discovered is how widespread sleep disorders are. “It’s an epidemic,” he says. “It’s hard to speak to anyone who doesn’t have some version of a sleep disorder.” Despite this, Ricci also realized that very little was known about this fundamental aspect of human life until relatively recently. “Not much scientific work had been done … until mid-century, when REM was discovered and finally some kind of scientific study of sleep began. It is still in its infancy, really.”
The landscape of sleep and sleeplessness offered fertile ground for his story, which also sprang out of a competing – but not entirely distinct – impulse. Ricci speaks of his “irritation” with his own inability to sleep, which dovetails with something he has heard from readers of his earlier fiction: his protagonists, by and large, are often themselves accused of being irritating. Not every reader reacts this way, Ricci admits, but a significant minority of complaints have caused him to take notice.
“It kind of pisses me off that [readers] expect [my protagonists] to be nice or likeable or cuddly. Or that they expect any fictional characters to be different from people in real life who, in my experience, often end up repeating the same mistakes over and over again, keep falling into bad relationships and not understanding why they do it, resolve to do things that they never do, and generally act as if they have free will but don’t exercise it.”
The reaction of readers to characters they find unsympathetic is not simply annoying, in Ricci’s view: it’s actively dangerous. “What I think books are supposed to do is push readers into uncomfortable places,” he says. “Places where they recognize something about themselves that makes them uncomfortable. As opposed to just ending with this good feeling where all questioning is cut off.”
David Pace, the character at the centre of Sleep, is therefore a conscious pushback on the part of an author who wants to force his readership out of its comfort zone. As he falls deeper into the grip of pills to counter his condition, Pace flirts with violence and extremes that are meant to discomfit readers. “Literature is precisely there to take you to those uncomfortable places,” Ricci says.
Which is not to suggest that Sleep’s protagonist is an unrecognizable monster. On the contrary, one of the things that might render him, and the book, so disconcerting is the degree to which readers might see themselves in his increasingly unhinged actions. “He’s a character who starts out really wanting the wrong things,” Ricci says. “Although they seem to be the things that everyone thinks are the right things. Somehow the more abhorrent his behaviour becomes, in some ways he’s becoming more truthful and trying to get to some rock bottom of authentic experience.”