The Big Idea: Victor Manibo
The grind never stops. Except for sleep, of course, but what would our world look like if you could remove that part of the equation? Author Victor Manibo had this same question, and decided to create a whole world to answer it in his newest novel, The Sleepless.
The story seed for The Sleepless came to me during a particularly busy time in my life, so you could say that the book is a sort of wish fulfillment. On a train ride home after a weekend out of town, I was hit with a bad case of the Sunday scaries because I had so much work to do in the week ahead. There were the demands of my nine-to-five office job, familial and social obligations, and the seemingly endless tedium that comes with being an adult. I fantasized, not for the first time, what it would be like if I didn’t need to sleep.
I’d get to do a lot more things, that’s for sure. I wouldn’t have to worry about having enough time to cross off my ever-growing to-do list. As it were, I didn’t need a full extra eight hours to finish it off; if I didn’t need to sleep, I’d likely have time left over for a side gig. The idea of rest of self-care didn’t come to me right away, and when it did dawn on me, it made me realize how much I’d been caught up in this mindset that every moment has to be productive, somehow. It’s so pervasive and insidious in American culture–this drive to strive, to keep improving one’s self or one’s station, to hustle–that I then began to wonder what it would be like if everyone didn’t need sleep. Would it be something that people would welcome? How would individuals adapt? How would society?
Every new answer I had for myself opened up more questions, and after a couple of days of expanding on this thought experiment, I started typing the opening lines to The Sleepless.
One of the first things that I had to decide was how to present the origin and spread of what the book calls hyperinsomnia. Because I knew that capitalism and its toll would be one of the central themes, the condition had to be one that was global, one that spread across borders, and that affected everyone regardless of their background.
A pandemic was a natural narrative device for what I wanted to do. Little did I know that as I revised and began to market the book, the real world would be mired in a virulent pandemic of its own. Thankfully, the story choices I had made before 2020 allowed me much-needed distance from current events. I had decided that, in order to focus on the story I wanted to tell, the events of The Sleepless would occur a decade after the initial spread of hyperinsomnia. That way, I could better explore how the characters in this world have ordered their lives following such a seismic shift, instead of the emotional and logistical issues that come with the early days of a pandemic. The focus isn’t “What is happening and how do we stop it?” but rather “This is the new normal–what do we do now?”
Ten years into the spread of hyperinsomnia, the world of The Sleepless wasn’t concerned with containment, or even finding a cure. Many learned to be ambivalent about their condition, and even more have begun to embrace it, realizing the advantages that extra time afforded them. That desire to become Sleepless underlies the conflicts of the book, and is a predominant factor in the choices made by our protagonist, Jamie Vega.
As much as hyperinsomnia has similarities to capitalism, the book doesn’t treat them as analogues. The machinery of capitalism is a separate thing, one that looms over the Sleepless world that I’ve created. Whenever I talk to people about the book, the question posed by the premise inevitably comes up. If there were no downsides, would you give up sleep? The answers vary, but one constant is mention of work as a consideration: the need or desire to work more, or to have time to recover from having to work, or to fulfill one’s needs by making more money. It’s true to how characters in The Sleepless approach the question, and the reasons that some of them provide. The underlying consideration isn’t solely the extra time, but the way that extra time can be used to be a fuller participant in capitalism.
Given that prevalent mindset, corporate exploitation was inevitable. If people wanted more time, let’s give it to them. At a price, of course. Writing this part of the book during an actual pandemic was yet another sobering reminder of how we live in dystopic times. Corporate interests and economic considerations affect vaccine development and distribution, as well as quarantine and isolation policies. As guiding principles, science and equity seemed to be on par with profit in deciding how we should order our lives around this public health threat. Seeing this play out all over the world provided me with much inspiration, for lack of a better term.
I wrote The Sleepless mostly to satisfy my curiosity. Yet what started out as a highly individual and context-specific what-if question has become this journey of examining of my relationship with time, with work, and with the systems we all live under. Though the book might not provide neat answers, in the end I hope the book raises the same questions for the reader, and encourages them to go on the same journey I did.