Thomas Glavinic,
Night Work
(Canongate, 2008)

This novel is speculative fiction that is not easily classified. It has elements of science fiction, horror and fantasy. It was originally published in German.

Jonas is a young professional. He has a steady girlfriend and lives in an apartment in Vienna, Austria. One day, he wakes up and realizes that, while all the plants he encounters are fine, and everything mechanical works, there is no evidence of any human or other animal life left. There are no bodies; everyone and everything has just vanished.

Jonas does everything he can to find someone alive, somewhere. He drives all over Europe. He calls people in England, America and other countries. He gets no answers. The Internet is down. The television and radio give him nothing but white noise. The newspapers, from the day before everyone disappeared, give no hint of anything momentous in the works.

What does one do with one's life when there is absolutely no one else in the world? Most people are innately social to some degree. How does one fight boredom and find meaning? How does one stay sane? These are the questions that Jonas must answer, with no help from anyone. He must figure out the meaning of his life now, and what he is going to do with it.

To compound the situation, or as a result of it, Jonas develops a combination of narcolepsy (falling asleep abruptly and unpredictably) and somnambulism (sleep-walking). This results in several weird and potentially dangerous situations.

The premise of this book is very interesting. It is like Cormac McCarthy's The Road or George Stewart's Earth Abides, in the extreme, or I Am Legend without the mutants or zombies, or even a dog. It is the social version of sensory deprivation experiments. Jonas's reaction to the situation is very credible. He does much of what I would do in that scenario.

This is basically an in-depth character study of a person in a wholly-untenable situation. As a clinical psychologist, I am intrigued by this type of story, and I do not think I am alone in that. The "what-if" type of story that focuses on coping with the absurd adversities of life is my job, and this is just an extreme example of that. In that regard, it is done well.

On the other hand, this story -- which starts off with a scenario that would be a nightmare for almost any real person -- ends up being a very long, slow, overly-detailed, somewhat repetitive nightmare for the reader. As one would expect, this is not a happy story, but the depressed tone really beats on the reader as the tale winds on to what is not an unpredictable ending. While it is not as disturbing a story as The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall, but it is also not as enthralling or compelling.

Read The Road or Earth Abides instead, or The Raw Shark Texts. They are more compelling, in my opinion.

review by
Chris McCallister

14 February 2009

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