Adrian Barnes, author of the novel NOD, lost his long battle with cancer in early 2018. I was introduced to his work by Kevin Duffy who had the great foresight to publish NOD through Bluemoose Books (and more recently through Titan), and instantly fell in love with it. I made contact with Adrian several times via email before his death, and even though he was very ill, he was kind enough to offer his time. Clever, talented, and a great loss to literature. Last I heard, 20th Century Fox had picked up the rights for a TV adaptation of NOD. Hopefully that’ll come off. As for the book…
Nod is a novel that only comes around every five to ten years. It takes that long for a writer to create a piece of fiction that actually has something say and is unique. Nod is that book. It tells the tale of Paul who finds himself an unlikely prophet after his manuscript on the etymology of words becomes a surrogate bible to a city who cannot sleep.
Vancouver is the backcloth to this insomnia epidemic, one that has gripped nearly every one of its inhabitants, save for a few individuals, like Paul, who go by the collective noun Sleepers. The Awakened are zombie-like insomniacs shuffling around the city, wanting sleep, slowly going crazy and dying, or killing themselves just to fall into eternal darkness. One of these Awakened is a local vagabond called Charles, known by Paul, who comes into possession of the manuscript, and as such, sees himself as a sort of apostle, a person who believes within the construct of its words and phrases hides hope, a kind of instructional manual for a new world. Charles convinces the Awakened that this disease is only to purge the world of society’s flotsam, and that soon, there will be a uprising, a new beginning, and the Nod manuscript will govern their lives forevermore. The destruction and breakdown of civilization is only part of the story, a necessary sacrifice to deliver a narrative rich with religious, ethic, and philosophical dichotomies, in particular, “good and evil”. The desire of sleep is the catalyst to behavioural explosions where being morally positive is consumed by the morally negative.
Adrian Barnes has successfully delivered a very simple dystopian story here; a nation in the throes of panic, frenzy, poverty, collapse and psychosis. But underneath lies a much richer, and cleverer, narrative where Paul, a self-confessed misanthrope, becomes a reluctant messianic saint, willing to sacrifice his own life to save others. Barnes’ ability to craft beautiful similes that immerse you in this crazy world is hypnotic, and the manipulation of words, turning them into nouns for characters, is akin to the adroit hands of Antony Burgess. The writing is sublime in places, funny in its social observations, and yet strong enough to stand up to many other literary books that frowned upon this type of genre. In truth, Nod could have easily been a novel written by Jim Crace, or for that matter, the transgressive-guru Chuck Palahniuk.
To steal a line from the book, “Life’s a scab, and it’s our nature to pick at it until it bleeds.” Nod is very much the same; once you begin picking at its narrative, it will mark you forever.