Bookshots: 'Black Moon' by Kenneth Calhoun
Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review
Who wrote it?
Kenneth Calhoun, a graphics design professor with stories published in The Paris Review, Tin House, and the 2011 Pen/O.Henry Prize Collection. Black Moon is his first novel. More info at his website.
Plot in a Box:
A handful of southern California residents navigate the crumbling landscape in the wake of a nationwide insomnia epidemic that more or less turns people into zombies (though this isn't a typical zombie narrative).
Invent a new title for this book:
Sleepless in Seattle, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York City...
Read this if you liked:
Anything in the zombie camp (though again, this isn't your typical fare), just about anything by Jonathan Lethem, and the heady horror stylings of Ramsey Campbell (even though Black Moon isn't exactly horror, either).
Meet the book’s lead:
The novel features an ensemble cast of well-drawn characters, but perhaps the most significant of these is Biggs, one of the few people left who can still sleep naturally. He braves the mean, "sleepless"-infested streets in search of his wife Carolyn, who disappears shortly after succumbing to the worst stages of the insomnia plague.
Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by:
His name is Biggs, so naturally I pictured Jason Biggs of American Pie fame, last seen displaying some pretty impressive acting chops as Larry in Orange Is The New Black (and thankfully, the character in Black Moon is nothing like Larry).
Setting: Would you want to live there?
A post-apocalyptic California, overrun with crazed insomniacs, littered with garbage and dead bodies? Probably not, but at least the weather would be nice.
What was your favorite sentence?
I could very well reprint the entire novel here, as it is a beautifully written piece of work. However, if I had to choose just one (or two), it would be this:
He would press his lips against her closed eyes. He would feel her eyes moving as dreams unfurled before them, a churning kaleidoscope of stories.
There's much to love about this debut novel. Perhaps its most attractive feature is the language, which I intimated above. I also compared its author to Jonathan Lethem, and I stand by this, though I think Calhoun's prose is more accessible, but no less stunning, than that of his predecessor. Lethem tells vivid and compelling narratives through literary gymnastics, while Calhoun dazzles with the subdued beauty and grace of a ballet.
This is not to say that Black Moon is focused solely on language. Calhoun does what every writer worth his or her salt should do: uses his prose as a vessel for telling the reader an evocative, immersive story. By plucking aspects of the zombie genre (the "sleepless" shamble about day and night, becoming dangerous with rage only when they catch someone sleeping, prompting Biggs to feign insomnia in order to "blend in"), Calhoun draws us in with something familiar, but then quickly subverts our expectations with a novel less concerned with action and violence (though he does deliver on this end), and more concerned with psychology and introspection. As I mentioned above, the novel features an ensemble cast of characters, each with their own histories and perspectives that add to the larger examination of a world without sleep. Or rather, a world without dreams, which is the true core of Calhoun's book. What would happen to a species if a significant portion of their collective minds simply stopped functioning? From our Everyman Biggs to Felicia, a college student coincidentally engaged in sleep research at a prestigious center on the coast, to a young child separated from her parents in the wake of the epidemic, as well as several others, Calhoun explores this question from multiple perspectives (with multiple consequences, some of which turn out grim). No characters feel forced, no actions feel false, and each narrative arc is resolved satisfactorily, with a few unanswered questions left perfectly hanging.
The year is early yet, but so far Black Moon is one of the best books I've read in 2014. Likewise, Calhoun has made a Godzilla-size blip on my radar. I've bookmarked his short stories available online, and I can't wait to see what else he has in store for us, novel-wise. A highly-recommended read.
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