A heavy-lidded private eye
Paul Tremblay is either brave or crazy to call his first mystery “The Little Sleep.”
There’s the obvious nod to Raymond Chandler, suggesting that Tremblay means to place the novel in a lineage of some kind. There’s the unnecessary burden of expectation, the tropes acknowledged or neglected, the heritage of hard-boiled fiction dating to 1939.
And yet, “The Little Sleep” is less reminiscent of Chandler than of a work by another writer: Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 breakthrough, “Motherless Brooklyn.”
That novel, which we might call a postmodern literary noir, revolves around a private eye with Tourette syndrome; in “The Little Sleep,” the detective narrator, a South Boston down-and-outer named Mark Genevich, suffers from narcolepsy, which makes him fall asleep at the most inconvenient times.
Lethem, of course, was after more than just a gimmick -- his book is a deconstruction, which comments on the genre even as it adheres to the conventions of the form.
“Have you ever felt,” his protagonist muses, “in the course of reading a detective novel, a guilty thrill of relief at having a character murdered before he can step onto the page and burden you with his actual existence? Detective stories always have too many characters anyway.”
Tremblay’s goals are less expansive; yet for him too, the condition of his character is no mere trick. Rather, narcolepsy is woven into the fabric of “The Little Sleep,” from the hypnagogic hallucinations that make Mark doubt his own experience to the cataplexic seizures that leave him conscious but unable to move.
Exhausted, burned out, constantly uncertain, he lives in a twilight world.
“Every time I sleep -- doesn’t matter how long I’m out -- puts more unconscious space between myself and the events I experience,” he reflects, “because every time I wake up it’s a new day. Those fraudulent extra days, weeks, years add up. So while my everyday time shrinks, it also gets longer. I’m Billy Pilgrim and Rip Van Winkle at the same time.”
Such complications come into play from the first scene of the novel, in which Mark is visited by Jennifer Times, daughter of the Suffolk County district attorney and a contestant on the hit reality TV show “American Star.”
Jennifer claims that someone has stolen her fingers, but before Mark can figure out what she’s talking about, he is asleep. When he wakes, there is a Manila envelope on his desk containing two photos. In the first, Jennifer sits on a bed in a skirt and T-shirt. In the second, she sits on the same bed, wearing only underpants.
It’s a cut-and-dried case, Mark decides, simple blackmail -- except for that stuff about the fingers, and the two goons, real or imagined, who all of a sudden start popping up everywhere he goes.
Jennifer, it turns out, is a MacGuffin, that classic red herring device of noir. Her visit was a hallucination, and the pictures -- which are old, 30 years or so -- are not of her.
It’s not giving anything away to reveal this, since it all unfolds in the first 50 pages of the book. That’s what kicks the real mystery into action, as Mark struggles to figure out how he got the pictures, as well as what they mean.
The fact that Mark can’t trust his own perceptions gives “The Little Sleep” an edge of existential crisis, as if he’s trying not just to solve a case but also the key to his consciousness. “Maybe I hit the redheaded goon with the book after all, assuming there were real goons in the first place,” he thinks after one scene of menace ends with him waking on a bench in front of a Cape Cod library, unsure of what, if anything, has actually taken place.
It’s a terrific plot device, especially in a first-person mystery, which relies for its forward movement on the detective’s ability to put together the pieces, to construct the story and tell us what it means. How do we know anything if Mark doesn’t know it? How do we know there’s a mystery at all?
Tremblay does a fine job of developing this tension, describing the incidents in Mark’s hallucinations as if they are really happening, blurring the lines between interior and exterior until, like the character, we are looking at everything with a kind of double vision, sussing out the clues that will tell us what is true.
And yet, for all that, there’s a sense of not quite fulfilled potential with this novel, one that belies its Chandler-esque roots. What Chandler did so brilliantly, after all, was to write about place, evoking Los Angeles in the 1930s and 1940s as a sunlit Gomorrah, or a Sodom by the sea. “The Little Sleep” aspires to do the same for South Boston -- Southie -- the insular, working-class Irish American neighborhood where much of the narrative occurs.
But although Tremblay plays with the small-town sensibility of the place (Mark’s late father was a boyhood friend of the district attorney, and his mother knew them all as kids), he never really gets at the noose-like closeness, the claustrophobic edge of everyone being in everyone else’s business, that tends to mark such communities. Rather, Southie appears here as something of a generic urban setting, a bit of local color and nothing more.
This is disappointing, for Tremblay, we can assume, knows the territory; he grew up in Massachusetts and still lives there. But maybe that’s the subject of another book.
In the meantime, “The Little Sleep” offers up an interesting gloss on the detective genre, in which the deepest and most profound mystery has less to do with any crime per se than with the enduring enigma of the self.