Sleepless by Charlie Huston

6504894Movies themselves had not stopped shooting. Certainly production had been scaled back, and more than one studio had gone under or, more accurately, been consumed whole by somewhat heartier competitors, but even as energy costs spiked, even as all cities, most suburbs, and many rural areas, experienced outbreaks of organized violence, even as the standing army was deployed with obvious permanence to the oil fields in Alaska, Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, and Brazil, even as the draft was reinstated and the gears of the economy audibly snapped their teeth and ground to a squealing halt, even as the drought extended and crops withered, even as the ice caps melted and coastal waters rose, people still liked a good picture.

What it’s about: It is the present. Ten percent of the population has been rendered permanently sleepless by a contagious prion. As a result, civilization is breaking down. Wildfires rage out of control outside Los Angeles, while the city itself has become a war zone. The sleepless play video games and take drugs for relief, but only one drug can really bring peace: Dreamer, which is in short supply.

Park is an LA cop, working undercover to sniff out black market sales of Dreamer. His wife is sleepless. His infant daughter may be as well. Park himself is finding it impossible to cope with what the world is becoming. He became a cop because he wanted to dispense justice according to the rules as he understood them, but those rules don’t really apply anymore. Then he discovers a murder scene from which he takes a thumb drive. On that drive is a file that points to a larger conspiracy involving Dreamer and the company that manufactures it. Despite being told to drop the investigation, Park can’t help but pursue it. His black-and-white sense of justice requires him to.

On the other side of the coin is Jasper, the narrator. Unlike Park, he not only embraces the apocalypse that he watches unfold from his hillside house overlooking the city, but he thrives in it. He is an emotionless mercenary, hired to do whatever needs doing, and very good at his job. His employer has asked him to recover her stolen property, a particular thumb drive that Jaspers discovers was taken from a murder scene. And so Park’s and Jasper’s paths begin to entwine.

Why I liked it: Sleepless is not just a noir crime story with an apocalyptic setting, although that certainly describes the plot. But in the course of telling that story, Huston examines the failings of modern society and wonders what it might transform into. The hero, Park, is unable to process the changes he witnesses. He is obsessed with returning the world to what he thinks it used to be, of making it “right” for his daughter to grow up in. In one poignant section from his journal – which is included in the narrative – he insists that his daughter has to grow up, she has to. But at the same time, he can’t admit that the world may be destroying itself for no reason, and that he can’t stop it. “It’s not too late,” he says, but when we read his words, we have a sickening sense that it probably is.

Jasper, the anti-hero, also needs for his life to have meaning. In his own way, he is also obsessed with, and he believes that the nature of his death will bring symmetry to his life and make its purpose clear. He doesn’t expect any other outcome, yet when the unexpected happens, he can adapt fluidly, unlike Park. He doesn’t want to reverse what is happening. He makes himself part of the new world emerging instead, even as it disintegrates around him. And we gradually realize that even though he is a cold-hearted killer, he is much more of a hero than Park is capable of being. This book gave me a lot to chew on. Huston has created a dark, surreal Los Angeles and a vision of the apocalypse that thoroughly captivated me.

You might like it if: You like noir-style writing combined with speculative fiction and complex plots. Similar authors would be Richard K. Morgan or, perhaps stretching it a little, Neal Stephenson.

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2 thoughts on “Sleepless by Charlie Huston

  1. Hi. Read this based largely on your recommendation – a great read, def 4 stars – misses out on the last for spreading the plot too thinly in the first 75%, then layering it too thick in the last quarter. That said, his vision of a city in the act of tipping over the edge is masterful and holds the reader totally. Thx for the tip. In return, I’d say take a look at “The Raw Shark Texts” by Steven Hall next time you’re in a bookstore, or perhaps Jasper Fforde’s “Shades of Grey”. Best, Christian

  2. Thanks, Christian, I pretty much agree with your assessments. I’m glad you liked it. I will check out those books. I always love getting personal recommendations. Shannon

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