In the last decade, pop culture has embraced the coming apocalypse with open arms. It’s inevitable; the only question left is how. Is it the flu? Zombies? Nuclear explosion? Asteroid?* Because clearly, regardless of which method, it’s coming. Personally, I love zombies. I don’t care that (nearly) everyone else loves zombies too. Through the brilliance of The Walking Dead, Pontypool Changes Everything, and Warm Bodies, the undead have earned my vote. To date, the most insidious method of population extermination is insomnia. Alarmingly plausible, a plague whose sole symptom is sleeplessness is both simple and effective. Without sleep, the world would go mad.
And that’s exactly what happens in Kenneth Calhoun’s Black Moon. In the novel, an infectious plague slowly works its way through the population. Leaving the vast majority of people insomniacs, it starts out harmless enough. They infected are tired. Eventually they become irritable. Then irrational. Delusional. And finally murderous. The trigger? Seeing someone sleep. To see a sleeper sends them into an endless rage. The novel alternates between several characters. Biggs is a (rather arrogant) man who is searching for his wife. He is still capable of sleep, she is not. He still searches for her after she tries to murder him. Lila, a teenage girl who had to flee her home after her parents tried to kill her. Chase and Jordan are an unlikely pair of friends who drive throughout the country trying to escape the coming plague. And finally there is Felicia, Chase’s ex-high school sweetheart and sleep researcher. The cause of the plague remains a mystery.
Maybe it was the death of an artist at the hands of a zealot. Maybe it was the preachers howling on the subways, or the political lies that hit us like the vibrating hand, killing us years later. Maybe it was the particles made to collide. Maybe it was a return to slavery. Maybe, like the nuts say, it was the chemtrails scarring the sky, the black helicopters, the UFOs hovering over sacred sites. Maybe it was the rewiring of our minds. Maybe the mapping of the genome. Maybe the blowing up of Buddhas. Maybe it was the death scream of dolphins ringing in our ears. Maybe it was the clash of gods, the tug-of-war over our souls, not one of them refusing to let go, instead opting to see us sliced in two by Solomon’s sword.
The premise of Black Moon is brilliant and enthralling. As the plague begins, the mystery and suspense of the sickness kept me glued to the book. This continued for the first third of the story. As Calhoun strives to show the precarious balance between dreams and reality, the narrative becomes increasingly muddled and confusing. To a point, I imagine, this is intentional, but the book suffers because of it. Somewhere near the middle, two tangentially connected characters are introduced and quickly disposed of. Separately, this would have been a brilliant short story, but when flippantly thrown in to the middle of a novel, it signaled the beginning of the end. And subsequently, the novel became a chore to finish.
Aside from Lila, the characters are wretched. I don’t have to like a character to enjoy a novel, but I do have to care about them in some way. Unfortunately, in Black Moon, I don’t. Even attempts to throw in absurd humor fell flat for me. Take Chase for example, he might be gay or he might not, but either way he could not maintain an erection. As the apocalypse ensues, he steals Viagra from a pharmacy and swallows the whole package. He spends the rest of the novel (and the majority of his narrative) with an erection that just won’t quit, locked inside the cab of a truck full of sheep. He seeks out Felicia to “show” her what he is capable of now.
Black Moon has a brilliant premise and lovely prose. Outside of that, I did not enjoy it. For such a short novel, there were too many characters with too many stories – many of which were underdeveloped with no real conclusion. It was incredibly frustrating and felt unfinished. It’s rare that I think a novel should be longer, but this is one such book. However, based on the strength and lyricism of the writing, I would give the author another chance. Unfortunately I won’t be recommending this one to anyone. Ultimately Black Moon is an interesting idea with poor execution, 1.5/5 (the extra .5 was earned by quoting a Wilco song – Black Moon). This novel is the equivalent of a food desert. However, there was mention of an ice cream date in one of Chase’s flashbacks. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day (as you may of guessed, I’m Irish), I’m pairing Black Moon with a Shamrock Shake (via The Sweet Life).
Oddly enough, this is the first negative review I’ve written. Normally, I simply don’t write about something I don’t enjoy, but I found the premise of this one so promising, that the disappointment was overwhelming and worth discussing. And trust me, despite what the blurb says, this one is not for fans of The Dog Stars and The Age of Miracles. If you’re interested in apocalyptic fiction, you may want to consider checking this one out (NPR liked it, even if I did not). In the meantime, I would recommend Zone One, The Flame Alphabet, The Missing, The Stand, or The Dog Stars.
How do you handle books you don’t enjoy? Do you still review them? Also, speaking of the zombie apocalypse, did anyone see tonight’s episode of The Walking Dead (let’s call it the Lizzie episode)? Because I found this funny (contains spoiler).
*The Stand, The Walking Dead, Above, Melancholia, respectively.
**I received a review copy of this novel in exchange for my honest opinion.