In the opening pages of Sleep, the tension-filled new novel by Nino Ricci, David Pace is driving home from the Toronto Zoo with his young son. David falls asleep behind the wheel – maybe for a moment, maybe more – and might have narrowly avoided a serious accident. He can’t be sure what he experienced and what he might have dreamed. It’s a harrowing scene.
Nino Ricci, two-time Governor General’s Award winner (for Lives of the Saints, his debut novel, and The Origin of Species), was in Winnipeg recently as part of the Fall Literary Series, presented by the WIWF and McNally Robinson Booksellers. Before his reading, he sat down to talk with the festival’s Bruce Symaka, about Sleep, and how fiction and come from personal experience.
“When I came down with a sleep disorder,” Ricci says, “I went to sleep doctors, I went to sleep clinics, read sleep research. And then I got interested. I learned how complicated sleep is.
“As I got into the sleep industry, I saw how widespread sleep disorder was. It’s epidemic proportions.
“I can’t remember when I thought, ‘This is a novel,’” he adds. “But in the way of inspiration, it took me down a path.”
David – married father, history professor – has narcolepsy. “This irrepressible feeling of sleep coming over one,” says Ricci. “It’s like death.
“At some point in this process, this character came to me,” Ricci says. As the novel progresses, the reader sees David trying various ways to stay conscious, first with pills, then through other, more radical, means.
David requires ever more stimulation to push sleep back; Ricci says he used that image as a metaphor for our times.“In our search for ever more stimulus, we need the next fix and it prevents us going deeper into the contemplation and silence we need for better understanding.
“Many of us are sleepwalking,” he adds. “We don’t have a sense of history. There are all kinds of patterns of history that keep repeating and we’re not aware.”
David makes bad and worse choices. His marriage is in trouble, he grows distant from his son, his career suffers, and finally he finds himself far from his normal life in the novel’s gripping closing pages.
“I see a bit of integrity in [David],” Ricci says. “He’s seen the darkness in himself and the lies he’s told. All he can do is get to the rock bottom, and see if there’s some kind of truth.
“There’s a vitality at the heart of him that’s not slipping away. When it actually happens, it’s liberating or releasing.
“The more David makes bad decisions,” Ricci concludes, “he gets addicted to these extreme decisions. These situations become the only times he feels awake and alive.”