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The Little Sleep
Paul Tremblay
Henry Holt paperback $14

review by David Hebblethwaite

Paul Tremblay first came to my attention last year, as the author of a very good short story in Interzone called The Two-Headed Girl. I very much admired the way he used language in that story to evoke a mood and create his effects; and that's the principle reason I was keen to read Tremblay's first novel. Naturally, being in Interzone, The Two-Headed Girl was science fiction; The Little Sleep is something quite different - a detective novel starring a narcoleptic PI - but the things I liked about the earlier story are still present. Unfortunately, the story itself is something of a weak link - but we'll come to that all in good time.

Let's start at the beginning. In classic noir style, the novel begins with our 'tec, Mark Genevich, in his office with a beautiful prospective client opposite - but it soon goes off to follow its own path. The classy dame is Jennifer Times, an also-ran from a TV talent show (though still in her 15 minutes of fame) and the daughter of a District Attorney. She wants Genevich to find who took her fingers - a request the PI is still puzzling over when he wakes from one of his 'little sleeps' to find Jennifer gone, and some compromising photos of her there instead - along with the negatives. Things only get stranger when Genevich starts to investigate, because Jennifer doesn't remember him; it turns out that her 'visit' was a hypnogogic hallucination - and it seems that DA Times doesn't want Genevich asking questions about those photographs...

The Little Sleep is told in the first person, and Tremblay is spot-on with Genevich's voice - dry, laconic... exactly as one imagines a noir detective might speak if he lived his life (at least) half asleep. The author has an ear for a good quip and turn of phrase; here, for example, is Genevich when he wakes to find the couch on fire from a cigarette that fell from his mouth: "The couch is smoking, cigarette and everything. It's a nasty habit the couch can't seem to break. The couch doesn't heed surgeon generals' warnings. Maybe it should try the patch." This voice is both a blessing and a curse, because it's engaging but also rather "one-note": the personification, as used in that quote, is a powerful technique that expresses Genevich's sense of distance from himself; but Tremblay employs it so often that it becomes wearying in the end.

Genevich's narcolepsy is another potential pitfall, as it has the air of a gimmick; one can imagine crass narrative moves like "the villain stepped from the shadows - but, when I woke up, he was gone!" For the most part, Tremblay avoids such traps; and that he doesn't do anything in particular to indicate Genevich's narcoleptic episodes (they just happen, and the story continues) is effective. There's only one occasion when the effects of the protagonist's narcolepsy felt like too much of a contrivance; but, unfortunately, it comes at a pivotal moment in the plot, and that did weaken the novel for me somewhat.

But I think the biggest limitation of The Little Sleep is that it revolves so completely around Genevich, it becomes stifling. We see everything through the detective's eyes, but there's not much to see beyond him. The investigation turns back on Genevich and his family history, which limits the plot's options and makes the solution to the mystery rather unsatisfying. What also doesn't help is that there's apparently so little to Genevich's life: no (living) friends, no partner, no children, no network of acquaintances - no real cast of secondary characters that can do so much to support a detective novel. The only real person in Genevich's life is his mother, Ellen; and the main distinguishing feature I can remember of her is not an aspect of her personality, but that she wears clown pants (she's a photographer who works with children). Like the few other secondary characters, Ellen doesn't really come to life anywhere near as much as Genevich does (and, admittedly, he can often come across as just a voice with a hat). Again, this limits what the novel is able to do.

The back-cover blurb of The Little Sleep says that Tremblay is currently writing a sequel; I think this is good news, even though I'm ambivalent about the present book. Mark Genevich is an interesting character, but I think he needs to be taken outside of his immediate circle, and I hope that a second volume will allow that to happen. As for The Little Sleep, it is good - even very good - in places; but ultimately not the best showcase for either its protagonist, or its author's talent.
The Little Sleep

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