Nino Ricci’s Sleep
by Alex Good

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SleepBy Nino RicciDoubleday, 2015(238 pages)

Sleep
by Nino Ricci
Doubleday, 2015
(238 pages)

We all know Chekhov’s principle of dramatic parsimony: if a gun is introduced in the first part of a story it absolutely must go off later. “It’s wrong to make promises you won’t keep,” the author wrote in a letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev (the “gun” in this case being a metaphor characterizing a monologue that Chekhov thought unnecessary). Today the concept tends to induce a kind of Pavlovian reaction in readers familiar with it – which, I think it’s fair to say, will include pretty much every reader of Nino Ricci’s Sleep. Once we see that special Nazi edition of the Beretta M1935 in the protagonist’s hand we’re already on alert; the author is ringing a bell in our ear.

The guns – there are many – in Sleep also trigger another knee-jerk reader response, as we’re encouraged to read them as symbolic compensation for fading virility. Sometimes a gun is only a gun, but not in this novel. Not when you’re a forty-something academic whose marriage has broken down and you’re on the hunt for any female giving off encouraging, or at least not discouraging, signals.

David Pace, Sleep’s anti-hero, is representative of an increasingly common figure in contemporary Canadian literary fiction. A couple of years ago I surveyed the Scotiabank Giller Prize’s longlist and remarked on its concern for characters of a certain age who were looking back not so much in anger as in wistfulness. They yearned for a second chance, a do-over. Part of this, I thought, was a function of authors entering into middle age, when regrets over one’s life become an unhealthy, even intolerable burden. Whatever the source of his anxiety, David Pace is very much in this same company, having made a complete mess of his life by its halfway mark.

Stuck in a failing marriage, and having already alienated, if not made a lifelong enemy, of his five-year-old son, Marcus, David is haunted by “the sense of a cosmic reprieve, a second chance”:

A second chance. He stares out and can see it shimmering in front of him, a chance at the life he had always wanted. The beautiful house, the beautiful wife, the beautiful child; the successful career.

It is no consolation to David that he actually has all of these things, because he “sees only the lie of it.” The lie of it being the reality of it, we assume. Nor is his mother’s warning that he is “not young enough anymore for a second chance” a caution likely to be heeded. That way only leads to despair.

David is, in short, a man who has lost his mojo; what he refers to as his “unmanning.” He started off his career with a tenure-bagging money shot of a book titled Masculine History, but has since been stuck in the usual academic grind, humiliated by his university’s administration and beginning to feel more and more like a washed-up phoney. He has trouble sleeping, but nobody can (or will) say exactly what his problem is. He is prescribed a bunch of drugs, headlined by the “unholy zeitgeist triumvirate” of Viagra, Prozac, and Ritalin: “three drugs whose brand names are like banners for the times.”

This business of a sleep disorder is, it seems to me, a bit of camouflage here. As the outline I’ve provided indicates, David’s problem is pretty clear. Before long he will be using pills to satisfy his libido, and carry a gun around as a prop to his masculinity. Like Justin, the protagonist of Russell Smith’s Girl Crazy (and another academic, albeit one much further down the food chain), such accessories make him hard, or, in this novel’s metaphorical language, “fully awake.” When David, now living in the US, registers for a safety class that will allow him to carry a concealed weapon, a bleached-blond girl (wink) at the sign-up desk tells him that “The first time you go out [with your concealed gun]you’ll feel like you just swallowed a box of Viagra.”

Which, by this time, is something he’s already done. But in America more is always more.

David’s new-found potency has an apocalyptic effect, makes the world seem new to him. The sleeper has awoken from his real sleep: “the dreamless sleep of the status quo,” and the “white space” in his brain. Apparently you can’t have any white space in your brain when you’re carrying a gun. You can’t allow yourself to be absorbed into Condition White. David’s gun instructor explains what this means:

Condition White is every jogger or boarder going down the street with earbuds jammed in their ears. It’s everyone texting or talking on the phone barely noticing what’s two feet in front of them. Condition White, basically, is asleep. It’s what almost everyone is almost all of the time, which is why people like you can’t be. Why every minute of every day, as soon as you step out of your door, you have to be on alert. Because when the time comes to do something, it’s on you.

But would it have been better to have stayed asleep, to have left the earbuds in? To have swallowed the blue pill, or some other drug cocktail? Put another way, to have been satisfied with “the lie of it”? Reality is not an option for a lot of people, perhaps for most of us.

After all, you never know where you’re going to wake up. A lot of what you think of Sleep will depend on how you interpret the ending. At one point (the novel’s time scheme is full of ellipses) David suddenly finds that he has lost his beautiful house and his beautiful wife, and is in fact in another country – non-specifically, a generic, Middle Eastern war zone. Why is he here? we ask, with the emphasis on the “why” and the “here.” What did he do to deserve such a miserable fate?

There’s no question he’s being punished by Ricci, having shown himself, throughout the novel, as more than worthy of some kind of comeuppance. Indeed, the refrain he is confronted with at the end is a demand to “Make him pay.” Pay for what? For being David Pace. Reviewing Sleep in Quill & Quire, Stacey Madden notes how “[f]ans 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.” That’s strong stuff, but Robert Collison in the Toronto Star one-ups it:

. . . this reader had to work, manfully, to arouse much sympathy for the novel’s central protagonist. He’s quite simply one of the most thoroughly disagreeable characters I’ve encountered in recent fiction. So when Pace meets his inevitable comeuppance at the novel’s conclusion, any sense of his demise being redemptive is trumped by another emotion: Good riddance to bad rubbish.

That David should have evoked such a response is something wonderful, though it may have less to do with Ricci’s imaginative range and intellectual versatility than to a rise in judgmental outrage, of the kind often disparaged as political correctness.

David is, in brief, a pig. That said, his punishment – to be shot like a dog, or foreign consul, in some violent backwater – is so severe it makes him seem, at least to me, more sinned against than sinning. In fact, I had quite a lot of sympathy for Professor Pace. For one thing, as bad as he is the other people in the novel come off looking even worse in my view. Surely we can’t be meant to admire his well-adjusted, conformist, yet hypocritical friends, family, and colleagues. Where is their self-awareness? His wife is a spoiled shrew, his mother and brother smug, self-satisfied members of the uber-bourgeoisie, and his other sexual “stands” (we certainly can’t call them conquests or victims) are both uncharitable and oblivious to their own shallow or mean-spirited reasons for screwing him.

Then there is the matter of his mysterious condition. Aren’t we supposed to be sympathetic toward people with a disability?

Alas, as David learns when he tries to milk his sleep problem for paid leave (“all this time he has been busting his balls trying to hide his affliction when he ought to have been flaunting it”) that’s not the way the system works. The entitlement game requires obtaining proper victim credentials or risk being cast into outer darkness. David is, as Madden and Collison both found, a figure to be condemned, not enabled.

The final section of the novel goes well out of its way to make David pay. But isn’t it overkill? Wasn’t it bad enough that he’d lost his job and family, was stuck renting a crappy shoebox apartment in the ‘burbs and driving a subcompact to work? That he’d endured every variety of public and private humiliation? Did he have to go to hell to be executed by a gang of juvenile delinquents?

Packing David off to such a violent, historically rich, surreal environment seems too grandiose a fate for such a small man. But in the end I don’t think David is being punished for his personal transgressions so much as for what he represents, which is the failure of a certain model of masculinity. Not that that model was ever an ideal, but the old roles – husband, father, teacher – are still there, waiting to be filled. What else do any of us have as guidance but tradition?

David isn’t the first character to be treated to such a fate by his creator. In Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, Tony Last goes through a divorce, of whose cause he is mostly innocent, and is sent packing to the physical and existential hell of the Amazon, in whose jungles he is doomed to swelter while reading the works of Dickens aloud to a comic (but no less sinister for that) Kurtz figure. Tony is a mostly likeable fellow, so what – you ask – was his crime? His great sin is less personal than it is cultural: he represents an antique social order that must give way to new freedoms and attitudes.

On one level, Ricci makes it very clear where he has sent David and why. “In the old stories it is only in hell the hero learns what will set him free. The trick is remembering. The trick is making it back.” Or, as the ancient adage has it, “Easy it is to descend to hell; but to retrace the path; to come out again to the sweet air of Heaven – there is the task, there is the burden.”

But this only returns us to David’s initial problem. He can’t retrace his path; couldn’t make it back now even if he wanted to. He’s not going to get a second chance, and even if he did he’d be too old to grasp it. To make the obvious, and intended, play on his book’s title, masculinity is history: there’s simply no salvaging the old traditional masculine roles and lifeways. David recognizes as much in the breakdown of relations between himself and his son. They bond briefly over guns, just as David had felt a connection, “like a dark thread,” to his own father through the latter’s Beretta. But this turns out to be only another dead end. David can feel it when he window-spies on the father of a kid who has been bullying Marcus. A “certain maleness, vaguely repellent, reminded David of himself.” Needless to say, being a member of a repellent gender is not something any man wants to be reminded of.

But he does need reminding. David is as much a fossil as the landed-gentry aristocrat Tony Last: useless as a lover or a father or a teacher, but still feeling drawn toward doing something in those directions. In the end, he hasn’t failed at being a man so much as being a man has failed him, dragging him, literally, before a series of tribunals and a brutal and humiliating end. He is punished not for what he is but for the quality of his dreams. His bitter fate serves notice to others: it’s a signpost declaring No Exit.

Such warnings are essential in the contemporary cultural landscape. One of the novel’s main motifs is that of the median, or borderland, which appears not just between states of consciousness, but between fictional genres: just as Dave isn’t always aware whether he’s awake or asleep, the story steps from domestic drama to allegorical fantasy while keeping both worlds in an odd, but effective, parallel focus. You can see this in the way the novel’s metaphorical elements, like its drugs and guns, are identified and rendered with mechanical precision, broken down to their chemical composition and firing rate, while locations are left vague and unnamed as we move from one generic city to another. At the start of the book there’s a moment when David feels particularly confused, stranded between perception and memory, nature and culture, the real and the imaginary:

They happen more and more, these emotions that surge in him though he can’t trace their source, the memories that shimmer yet stay out of reach. It is as if they are there but the bridge to them has been scuttled. Or he reaches a spot where there are too many turnings and no way to choose among them, to distinguish what is real from what he has read or seen in a movie, what has actually happened to him and what he has dreamed. The breakdown of borders.

This is a description of a man who is lost, not someone to be despised. With all the old landmarks eroded or torn down, how should a man be?

 

From CNQ 95 (Spring 2016)

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