Nonfiction Review by Joel Yanofsky

R. M. Vaughan, Bright Eyed: Insomnia and its Cultures (Toronto: Coach House, 2015). Paperbound, 129 pp., $14.95.

Bright EyedThere are two types of people in the world, the old joke goes: those who believe the world is divided into two types of people and those who don’t. In Bright Eyed: Insomnia and its Cultures, R. M. Vaughan is squarely in the former camp. Still, it’s hard to fault him for his dichotomous point of view. He’s spent most of his life as an insomniac—wide awake while successful sleepers all around him happily doze off. Bright Eyed is a self-conscious literary mashup—a mix of memoir, jeremiad, and cultural criticism. The memoir part has Vaughan, a Berlin and Toronto-based poet, critic, novelist and playwright, recounting his struggle to cure or at least cope with his chronic sleeplessness. He has, he confides, tried everything—from powerful prescription drugs to sleep clinics to wacky home remedies. Eventually, he resorts to taking long walks on quiet streets in the middle of the night, tempted to peek, from a legal if not always proper distance, into the windows he passes: “Here… was what happy people were doing, happy people living in happy homes. Healthy homes, where the end of the day was savoured, taken as a reward…. Homes with lowered lights where comfortable clothes and a forgivable slovenliness were indulged, where candles were lit and snacks nibbled … worlds encased in fleece and yellow light, plush caves.” For writers, there are worse motives than envy, less inspiring ones too. But envy also has a way of transmogrifying: first, in this case, into a personal hatred for “the sleepers,” then into a kind of proselytizing panic. In the jeremiad part, Vaughan warns blissfully cozy readers that it’s only a matter of time until they’re tossing and turning right along with him. Vaughan rounds up most of the usual suspects to explain what he labels “insomnia culture.” There’s our 24/7 jobs, social media, the smart phones everyone seems to keep by their bedsides; there’s our unremitting busyness. “We are not all turning into zombies,” Vaughan writes, “we’re turning into hummingbirds—creatures that die if they stop moving.”

Bright Eyed is published by Coach House Books and is part of its “Exploded Views Series.” The series, according to Coach House, is made up of “probing, provocative essays that offer surprising perspectives on the most intriguing cultural issues and figures of our day.” Of course, for that particular chemistry to work, “the most intriguing cultural issues” of the day really need to be intriguing. They also really need to be issues. And while there’s no doubting Vaughan’s personal anguish, his argument that our culture is dazed and confused and inexorably headed in a similar sleepless direction sometimes feels like a metaphorical stretch.

Maybe that word, culture, is the problem. Vaughan’s credentials as an art critic seem to compel him to make molehills into mountains. In the middle chapter, “By-products,” he follows his instincts for cultural criticism, in the visual arts, one of his areas of expertise, down a particularly deep and twisty rabbit hole. His assertion, for instance, that there’s a destructive and “long-standing connection between creativity and insomnia” reads like insider talk—like a critic addressing his fellow critics. In fact, keeping track of the players on Vaughan’s scorecard of “faux outsiders” and “New Minimalists” can be, for the uninitiated, a pretty effective cure for insomnia in its own right.

Fortunately, Vaughan does quickly offer a refreshingly self-deprecating counterpoint to his own rhetoric.  In the next chapter—titled “Counterpoint,” in fact—he pokes fun at his own weakness for high-minded theorizing. To make his point, Vaughan includes an email interview he seems to have foisted on an unsuspecting Douglas Coupland. Vaughan begins by admitting to being a fan of the bestselling author and cultural commentator. He’s contacting him, he confides, in the hope of acquiring “some wise thoughts” from Coupland on “what is happening to sleep.” Once the two connect, though, Vaughan realizes that “to my initial horror—and now, on second glance, delight—Coupland could not have agreed with me less.” The correspondence concludes with Coupland finally, politely admitting his confusion. He tells Vaughan: “I don’t understand this question. Sorry… I just don’t get it. I really don’t.”

There is a lot to like about Bright Eyed. It’s brief and to the point—both mandates of Coach House’s Exploded Views series—and, for the most part, Vaughan makes the potentially awkward blend of confession and cultural criticism smart and lively. For instance, he longs for a time when sleep disorders and possible treatments for them will be championed by celebrity advocates:  “Insomniacs do not have chat-show heroes, a Dr. Oz or a Deepak Chopra…. What sleep medicine needs, on a cultural level, is mainstreaming.” But it also feels, at times, like Vaughan is missing an opportunity in Bright Eyed to tip the balance towards the best parts of the book, which are invariably personal. Whether that’s Vaughan describing how his ability to stay awake proved to be “a social asset” as a young party animal—“I could clean up the mess before the parents came home…”—or his knack for talking sleep experts, from Montreal to Iceland, into confessing they’re sleep-deprived, too. He also shares the story of his long struggle with RLS or restless leg syndrome. According to Vaughan, RLS is the kind of neurological disorder that goes hand-in-hand with debilitating insomnia, but it’s also labelled an “orphan disease.” That means not enough people have it to make it worth researching. Of course, that doesn’t make Vaughan’s description of its effects on him any less chilling: “Imagine being tired and ready for bed…. Now imagine that just as you are about to lose consciousness, somebody creeps into your bedroom and injects you with an oversized, clown’s-prop needle full of adrenalin…. And the adrenalin won’t wear off for hours, long after the cramps, the seized muscles and the feeling that your kneecaps are being squeezed between two bricks have dissipated.”

In the end, the scourge of insomnia might have found, in Vaughan, the advocate it’s been looking for. Now, all Vaughan needs is his own Bright Eyed chat show.

—Joel Yanofsky

As in The Malahat Review, 193, Winter 2015, 153-155