Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews Black Moon by Kenneth Calhoun. (Penguin Random House)
I’ve seen people complain about the over-saturation of the dystopian novel in recent years. Similar to the paranormal romance trend, it seems like it is low-hanging fruit for the young adult genre (see: Divergent and Hunger Games) and, while I don’t doubt the argument has some validity, I don’t want to count any novel out based on the premise.
Kenneth Calhoun’s novel, Black Moon doesn’t sound unlike Jose Saramago’s Blindness. In Calhoun’s book, people lose the ability to sleep as opposed to the ability to see. The premise feeds into the progression (or digression) of humanity losing this simple ability we have taken for granted and how that shift in our reality will affect our nature. The key element Calhoun employs is he doesn’t hinge everything on this premise; and because of this choice he is able to not only transcend the genre, but avoids the label of imitator as well.
There are human stories running throughout Black Moon. There are three main and two secondary storylines that interweave in the book. The most prominent is Biggs, a man who finds himself immune to the widespread insomnia, and one night while he sleeps his wife goes missing. The rest of the book shows him walking for what appears to be weeks in an attempt to find her. Then there is Chase, a college dropout who is still pining for his high school sweetheart. They moved away to college together, but when Chase couldn’t sexually perform it seemed like his whole life fell apart. He teams up with his friend Jordan and they begin stealing sleeping pills, thinking they can capitalize on the stash once the epidemic gets bad enough. The youngest character in the novel is Lila, a girl who is sent away from her parents’ home because it isn’t safe for her anymore. After she is in a car accident, her sole mission is survival.
All these characters have complex issues not directly tied to the insomnia. Once the supernatural event takes place, they are forced into trying to fit their individual problems into the world’s larger issues. This is why Calhoun is able to get away with writing another dystopian novel—it’s not engaging because of the premise, it’s engaging because of the characters he was able to flesh out.
The main antagonist of the book is sleeplessness and because of that Calhoun posits that the members of society will essentially turn into a horde of zombies. The insomniacs become so intertwined in their waking subconscious that they are not able to distinguish reality from fantasy. The desire for sleep makes them act crazy and attack anyone who still has the ability to sleep. They want to kill the sleepers in an attempt to excavate the ability from their brains. At times, making the insomniacs murderous zombies seems like a little much, but, as he does with the premise, the story isn’t hinging on these monsters. They are a plot device to move the more intriguing and important parts of the book forward and because of that I am more inclined to forgive and forget some of the sillier moments.
As the book progresses, we have to continually reorient ourselves with characters and their own self-proclaimed missions. In the same way you try to remember a dream, chapters begin with negative space the reader is expected to make up for within a few pages. For example, at one point we leave Biggs in a brothel where he is sleeping comfortably and when we come back to him two or three chapters later he is in a cage fending off one of the insomniacs. This momentary confusion works well because it helps fold the reader into the dystopia Calhoun has created. We aren’t simply reading what is happening, but we’re beginning to fall into the headspace of the characters while they fight against an unknown epidemic.
Black Moon is a tight thriller. It reminds me of early Stephen King with the level of importance and detail involved in making each of the characters real, fully fleshed-out humans. Kenneth Calhoun writes these complex and rounded people and then puts them through an unimaginable hell. At the same time, it reminds me of Chuck Palahniuk, but without the inevitable twist. Calhoun is able to make the extraordinary feel ordinary. Part of the reason this story works so seamlessly is because, in the same way Saramago uses supernatural events, Calhoun doesn’t try to explain it. The insomnia epidemic is simply something that has happened and the why isn’t the question Calhoun feels the need to answer—he knows that would put too much weight onto the premise. Rather, it is the what he explores and it’s so much more satisfying than anything else he could have given us.