Don’t Wait to Be Sleepless: A Review of Black Moon by Kenneth Calhoun

Black Moon

The world is a waking nightmare – Sweet!

A few weeks ago, a Twitter friend of mine followed one of my book recommendations by picking up Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments — a book about an IT worker who unintentionally begins reading the email exchanges between two coworkers, and then falls in love with one of them. It’s a mostly feel-good novel with just the right amount of misfortune to keep it from being too bouncy, and I genuinely enjoyed watching the two main characters blunder through their lives. I don’t know, maybe I could relate. Anyways, it was through Goodreads, the social media site for book nerds, that I learned my friend had finished the book… and hated it. I was surprised to find myself upset. Not that I disagreed with her assessment of the characters (for being more than a little unlikable), or the plot (for being front-loaded) –, no I was upset because she had picked up the book because of my recommendation. She had even put it down, and come back to it — a task I was never up for, once a book was put down, it was down. I felt I had disappointed her, and that maybe my taste in books was awful.

So when I finished Kenneth Calhoun’s Black Moon, and was hopping around my apartment in anticipation of recommending it to my friends, you’ll understand why I hesitated before actually screaming from my car window about it. I was even more cautious because I know Ken, in a hey-the-universe-is-weird kind of way, and I almost never trust the opinions of friends of writers, no matter what sense that might make. Friends should be cheerleaders. Friends should have a mostly positive outlook of your work, even if they don’t always like what you write. Why would a friend of a writer tell you not to read her friend’s work? Maybe a frenemy would tell you not to, but a real friend would walk you into to the bookstore, guide you to the shelf, and place the book in your hands.

I say all this to say, GO READ THIS FREAKING BOOK. I would like to take the credit now for being the person who mentioned it to you before you see it on Good Morning, America. I want to be the person who told you before it becomes a television show on HBO. I want you to be walking by it on display, then slow down, and go back and buy it, because didn’t Monet mention Ken Calhoun’s Black Moon? Yes, she effing did.

Remember: I admit to being biased. I was going to buy this book no matter if I loved it or not. The writing community is small — if you know one writer, you know five. And if any of the writers from my MFA program, or the writers I met at AWP, or any other kind of writer I might know published a full-length book or collection, I would and will buy it, without needing to know at all what it’s about. This is not to say that I will love every one of these books, or that I will write a review of all of them, but it’s about supporting the effort and passion that goes into these projects.

I actually read a story based on the world of Black Moon, almost four years ago when Ken and I were both at Elon University – he was teaching and living on campus as a faculty-in-residence, and I was working in Residence Life, in charge of his residence hall.  It was near the end of both of our time at Elon, and I had mentioned off-handedly that I was going to get my MFA and Ken said we should exchange work. He sent me a few pages of the short story and I sent him a few poems. I knew immediately that I was out of my league. It wouldn’t be until after a few graduate level classes that I could articulate how much I was being outclassed, but I could still recognize it. This particular piece was later published by Redivider.

Now for it to be years later, and holding a bound copy of those same ideas, is still kind of astonishing to me, and yet feels so right. Did I mention you should go read this book? I know I have, but I haven’t told you why, because with most things the why is complicated. The why should not be because I told you to go read it, though if we’re honest with each other, that’s how most books come to us. But I will be more cautious in this recommendation as to avoid another Attachments disaster.

The premise of Black Moon sounds like a trailer for a sci-fi movie, which is exactly how Ken reeled it off to us – movie-man voice and all — at his reading at The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, NC. Imagine a future where one by one the entire world begins to suffer from insomnia, sleeping pills and draughts don’t work, and as the epidemic takes hold, the people who can still sleep are in terrible danger. As a reader of sci-fi and fantasy, this is my kind of opener, but for people who don’t necessarily enjoy apocalyptic set-ups, this would be where you turn off, BUT DON’T. Because as often as Ken begins to go into genre, he just as quickly subverts those expectations on the next page. The book is as much Literary Fiction as it is a Sci-fi Thriller.

We follow several characters through their battle against insomnia:

  1. Biggs who is looking for his wife, Carolyn, an enigmatic artist who believes in the power of dreams
  2. Lila, a teenager girl who hides behind a mask
  3. Chase, a happenstance (and hapless) drug peddler whose erectile dysfunction provides a horrible kind of comic relief
  4. and Felicia, Chase’s ex-girlfriend who works at a sleep research center

Following these characters through chapters and paragraphs that varied dramatically in length reminded me of the novel’s original existence as short stories. But worry not about feeling like the story is disjointed. Calhoun does an excellent job of placing information throughout each section of narration that illuminate later like the neon strips that line airplane aisles in case of power loss, in case of emergency. And an emergency is exactly how this whole book feels – the pace moving faster than sometimes I could keep up with emotionally – I had to put the book down several times and catch a breather. I was scared. I was nervous. I felt connected to all the main characters, in particular Lila, and I could feel how precariously balanced each was on the precipice of disaster.

I learned to pay attention to the ruminations of the insomniacs whose garbled speech felt more profound in its disorganization. In one of the most harrowing moments of Black Moon, a couple with a new born baby is deep into their sleeplessness, and the baby becomes a horrible symbol of how far their awareness has deteriorated. At one point the husband, Adam, leaves the baby in the bathroom, and when his wife realizes, he apologizes by saying, “Forgive this from me because my deficit is red.”

The language of the sleep-deprived, the language of dreams, and even the language of catastrophe was all beautiful, and poetic in its attention to detail. I paused so often over sentence construction that I’m sure I added three hours to my reading time. And this is probably the most important reason you should read this book: It’s got everything – a plot that sweeps you up into its whirling tornado, characters that you want to see succeed (even as you know they all won’t), moments of hilarity in the middle of tragedy, and writing that I found more and more enviable with each page.

I’ve seen comparisons of Black Moon to Peter Heller’s The Dog Star, another book based in a post-apocalyptic world. I haven’t read The Dog Star, but I will now, because I think I might be addicted to the urgency, and the desperation of the end of the world — of course at the safe distance of fiction. You really don’t want to miss Black Moon by Ken Calhoun, though I do apologize in advance for your loss of sleep, but not for the recommendation.

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