Seven years after the publication of his Governor General’s Literary Award–winning novel, The Origin of Species, Nino Ricci hits readers hard with a scorched-black account of a tormented man’s decline into sleeplessness and self-destruction.
Sleep, Ricci’s darkest and most thematically daring work to date, tracks the professional and psychological undoing of celebrity academic David Pace as he struggles with what his doctor refers to as a “deep brain disorder” causing “a breakdown in the border that separate[s] waking from sleep.” The condition, along with the ever-changing cocktail of prescription drugs David consumes with almost recreational enthusiasm, precipitates a spiral of devastation that ends his marriage, destroys his career, and ignites his deep-rooted lust for violence and reckless behaviour.
Fans of Ricci’s earlier novels might be taken aback by how unlikeable David is, which is a testament to the author’s imaginative range and intellectual versatility. In truth, David verges on detestable. He’s a lascivious, self-absorbed volcano of a man who mistrusts his own family and returns favours with spite. After a colleague generously offers him an adjunct teaching position at an American school following
allegations of sexual assault, David responds by initiating a sordid sexual affair with that same colleague’s wife.
From falling asleep at the wheel with his five year-old son in the car to screaming matches with his wife, David’s resentment of his own family, whom he treats as burdens (“just things that get in the fucking way”), culminates in a fainting spell during a vicious argument that leads to divorce. “What sets it off in him, mostly, is anger, as if anger and dream sit too close to one another in his brain.” It isn’t until he happens upon his father’s old Beretta M1935 and drives down to Toronto’s lakeshore at night to fire off a few rounds that he starts to feel “clearer than he has in months.”
David’s invigorating fascination with firearms has disastrous consequences, costing him two jobs and ultimately landing him in an unspecified Third World country on the pretense of doing some in-the-field research for a book on failed states. This final section, which yanks readers out of a relatively secure setting and drops them in a lawless hornet’s nest, points most directly to the thirst for violence that thrives once the trappings and comforts of society have been stripped away. Ricci’s willingness to deeply scrutinize these urges, in potent, perfectly chiseled language, makes Sleep a frightening and essential addition to the oeuvre of one of this country’s best and most important writers.