In "Black Moon," first-time novelist Kenneth Calhoun documents a plague of sleeplessness that threatens the very fabric of the world and reality. The sleepless have hallucinations and turn into the equivalent of manic, deranged zombies, while those who can still sleep struggle to maintain order, or even certainty, amid rising chaos. It's an intriguing premise, riffing as it does on the fading divide between work and free time, the virtual and real worlds, as well as modern fears of a virus-borne apocalypse.
Still, there's danger for a novelist in the erasure of the border between dream and wakefulness — most elegantly solved by writers such as Franz Kafka, who placed the often absurd actions of Reality within the walls of a kind of perpetual Dream State. Other approaches have fared less well because they forget that, in a sense, all words on a page form a dream entered into by the reader.
Calhoun's novel slips between many story lines, including one that chronicles the attempts of a man named Biggs to find relief for his wife, Carolyn. Her sleeplessness has made her so dangerous that he must tie to her to a chair. When Carolyn goes missing, Biggs searches for her unsuccessfully at their old apartment, and then, drawn to the strip club Delirious by its claims of a cure, catches a glimpse of a woman he thinks is Carolyn, only to again be disappointed.
Unfortunately, the details of a poignant, compelling artistic dream shared by the couple are hoarded by Calhoun so he can use it as a kind of revelation near the end of "Black Moon." It's sorely needed early so the reader will feel some kind of emotional investment in Biggs' rather sparsely described and uninteresting travails.
The story of college student Chase on a road trip to California with his friend Jordan as part of a scheme to sell stolen sleeping pills forms another major thread. It begins unpromisingly with Chase wandering around his apartment describing himself in the mirror and thinking about his life. Things get worse at a stopover in Idaho during which Jordan tries to kiss Chase, thinking that his dysfunctional relationship with ex-girlfriend Felicia, who works in a lab striving to find a cure for the plague, means Chase must be gay — or will be once the sleeplessness becomes more widespread. Chase then takes generic erection pills. After contemplating sex with a sleeping Jordan, he thinks of Felicia and then goes off to try to find some way to get release. Hilarity ensues. Or doesn't. Chase hits the road with a truck full of sheep and his giant erection.
At times, however, "Black Moon" settles down and begins to reflect why Calhoun has been published in places like the Paris Review and Tin House. In chapters devoted to the teenage Lila, who survives her parents going insane, startling and evocative descriptions tether the novel to scenes of much greater power. Lila wanders her neighborhood in an owl mask, trying to survive amid scenes of horror and derangement: "She stood, head in a tiny globe of darkness, fronted by the same protective pattern found on the wings of butterflies."
These scenes give the reader a good sense of what it's like to exist in the middle of disaster. Another thread, involving Felicia's lab research, is also compelling, with an undercurrent of the surreal as science grapples with matters of the subconscious. When Felicia ventures out to field-test a solution and encounters Lila, "Black Moon" finally settles into a more compelling groove — and abandons writing that often otherwise seems lazy or imprecise.
Writing about sleeplessness and dreams is ambitious. Cramming so many viewpoint characters into a relatively short novel is also ambitious. Like a half-formed dream, the novel aspires to encompass both the detached compassion of Ben Marcus' "Flame Alphabet" and some atonal mix of Bret Easton Ellis and Stephen King-style Americana.
"Black Moon" doesn't quite cohere, but there is promise in some of the prose and promise in the novel's off-kilter frenetic energy.
VanderMeer's latest novel is "Annihilation."
Hogarth: 288 pp., $24