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Onyx reviews: Sleepless by Charlie Huston

Little new can be done with the zombie novel beyond completely re-inventing what the word means, which is effectively what Charlie Huston does in Sleepless. His metaphorical zombies are not resurrected dead, mindless creatures obsessed with eating living people's brains, thereby turning them into zombies, too. Huston's zombies are the living victims of a prion infection called SLP, akin to Mad Cow Disease, that robs them of the ability to sleep.

The resulting chronic insomnia takes about a year to kill its victims. During this period they undergo a steady degeneration, losing the ability to focus, to remember, to cope. The disease's method of transmission is unknown—at first it was thought to be genetic—but it's spreading fast. About 10% of the population is infected when Sleepless opens in mid-2010. 

Though people continue to travel and Hollywood is still making movies, activities where people congregate in large numbers—Major League Baseball, for example—have been cancelled. Domestic terrorists are setting off suicide bombs, and gangs have taken over some neighborhoods. Drug trafficking is on the rise, especially in the kinds of drugs that the sleepless take to achieve a measure of relief, mostly uppers and psychotropics. The sleepless are not dangerous per se—many of them spend their eternal waking hours playing online adventure games, amassing virtual riches and creating avatar characters that are part of an underground economy—nor are they persecuted.

It's not quite the apocalypse of Cormac McCathy's The Road, but an apocalypse is on the horizon if the pandemic continues unabated. Martial law is in effect. Armed enclaves are springing up in the wealthy neighborhoods of southern California where the book is set. Gas prices have skyrocketed, air conditioning is banned, global warming is running rampant, and the normally crowded L.A. freeways are veritable parking lots, with frequent checkpoints where people's embedded id chips are scanned. 

A new drug known popularly as DR33M3R or "dreamer," a miracle discovery by Afronzo-New Day Pharma, promises brief respite for the sleepless. The pharma­ceutical company is gearing up production, but there's no way they can meet global demand. Authorities are taking every precaution to safeguard the supply, but they fear that some of it will be diverted into the black market, where it has the potential to completely destabilize society, perhaps even cause outright war.

This is where Parker Hass enters the story. He is an undercover LAPD officer, squeaky clean and impervious to corruption, working the narcotics beat. He's not interested in ecstasy or crack or any of the other drugs that have permeated society. His prime directive is to create a network of connections in the drug subculture and be on the lookout for any indication that DR33M3R is entering the black market. He's deeply embedded and flying without a net. The only way he can meet with his handlers without blowing his cover is to get arrested, which happens to him on a regular basis. 

As if his life weren't complicated enough, his wife, Rose, is one of the sleepless, and their newborn daughter Omaha might also have the disease. Rose is addicted to the online game Chasm Tide, and her sleeplessness often makes her forget crucial details, like the fact that she left Omaha in the bath, or that they even have a child. Park himself is not sleepless but over the course of the novel he does not take the time to sleep, which means that by the end he's almost as scatterbrained and exhausted as those with the disease. He's driven and running on fumes.

The novel is told from three different viewpoints, for reasons that will only be explained at the end of the book. Two of the viewpoints are first person narrators. One is a man named Jasper, a Vietnam vet who acquires things for wealthy people. His storyline appears at first to be tangential to Park's mission until he is asked to retrieve something that (although he does not know this) is currently in Park's possession. Jasper is infinitely resourceful, a killing machine without fear and with a plan for ever situation. The other narrator is Park himself—his sections take the form of a journal that he updates frequently and at length. To distinguish between Park and Jasper, Huston uses typography: paragraphs in Jasper's sections are indented whereas those in Park's are not. This structural trick takes some time for readers to work out, which can lead to confusion. Finally, there is a third person narrator who recounts the details of Park's life.

The book uses other stylistic tricks that work against the writer. At least Huston has elected to use quotation marks for dialog, a break with some of his previous books, but the text is completely devoid of dialog tags. A character does something and then a line of dialog appears in a new paragraph. This puts a burden on the reader to keep track of who's speaking, and can lead to confusion. The dialog itself can be problematic. Because many of the characters are addled by sleeplessness or drugs, their dialog can be borderline incoherent. They lose their train of thought, stop, start again. Traditionally this kind of broken dialog is depicted using ellipses, but Huston uses full stop periods, which makes it very hard to parse some passages.

The pacing of the novel feels unbalanced. Huston defers a lot of characterization until late in the book, halting forward momentum for lengthy passages of backstory. The story of Rose and Park's initial meeting and whirlwind romance is revealed in a narrative chapter between two intense action scenes, and contains information readers should have learned about the couple much earlier. 

Park and Jasper's vectors finally converge, leading to a series of violent confrontations told in painstaking detail. The story is inventive enough, and the characters are crisp and deftly drawn, but Sleepless isn't Huston's best work. Sometimes "clever" style serves only to obscure substance.

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