Magazine December 22, 2019, Issue

A Post-Apocalyptic Tale with a Twist

From the cover of The Second Sleep (Knopf)
The Second Sleep: A Novel, by Robert Harris (Knopf, 320 pp., $26.95)

In 1992, Robert Harris, then in his mid thirties, a journalist and already the author of five books of nonfiction, celebrated the publication of his first novel. Fatherland was a seductive experiment with alternative history, set in 1964, with Adolf Hitler and his cronies still alive and well, presiding over the “Greater German Reich.” In the mysterious way of certain best sellers that achieve an exceptional cultural currency, the book (widely translated) and the movie based on it made Harris a moderately wealthy man, and since then he has been a full-time novelist.

In 2012, a 20th-anniversary edition of Fatherland appeared with a new foreword by Harris. It includes a passage in which Harris talks about what it was like to write fiction for the first time. He tells us that he “was never one of those journalists who harbored a secret ambition to be a novelist,” but that he’d been gripped by an idea that could take only that form:

I wrote the opening few pages — my first pages of fiction — on a Saturday afternoon in 1989, in a kind of ecstatic daze generated by the realization that I could imagine literally anything and set it down on paper — that a body with a leg missing could surface on a lake during a storm, or that a marching band could pass from one side of a square to another, watched by my skeptical hero through a rain-flecked window. I felt as if a whole powerful section of my mind were switching on for the first time.

But after two weeks, inspiration flagged, and Harris set the project aside for more than a year. When he picked it up again and began to tinker with it, still rather dubiously, he had an insight that allowed him to proceed with renewed confidence and finish the book: “A novel, I suddenly perceived, is essentially a recounting of something that has already happened.” Taken by itself, this may seem utterly banal, but not if we flesh it out a bit: Writing (and reading) fiction thrives on the active tension between that “ecstatic daze” Harris describes (“I could write literally anything”) and the inevitability of “something that has already happened.” (This helps to explain why the best fiction doesn’t merely permit but invites rereading, and rereading yet again.)

Harris has written a dozen novels since Fatherland, the most recent of which is The Second Sleep. Here is the first sentence of Chapter 1 (“The Hidden Valley”): “Late on the afternoon of Tuesday the ninth of April in the Year of Our Risen Lord 1468, a solitary traveller was to be observed picking his way on horseback across the wild moorland of that ancient region of southwestern England known since Saxon times as Wessex.” Note the deliberately quaint manner of that sentence, which — combined with the chapter title — hints at the kind of novel we are starting: a tale (a distant relative of Voltaire’s Candide) rather than an exercise in what gets called “realism.”

A few readers may sense their antennae quivering at that odd locution “the Year of Our Risen Lord.” Why not simply “the Year of Our Lord”? This turns out to be another clue as to the kind of novel we’re holding: It is playful. Harris is playing a trick on us, and if the trick were sustained for long, I wouldn’t reveal it here. No worries, though, for quickly more clues accumulate. On the next page, our solitary traveler, fending off overhanging branches with his arm, gets a scare: “Something shrieked and flashed emerald in the gloom, and his heart seemed to jump halfway up his throat, even though he realised almost at once that it was nothing more sinister than a common parakeet. He shut his eyes in relief.”

A “common parakeet” in England in 1468? More deliberate anachronisms pile up until Harris judges that the misdirection has served its purpose. The story we are reading is set in the future, not in the past. The Second Sleep is a post-apocalyptic novel, with a twist. Around 2025, we learn, the intricately interconnected global society that you and I today brood about, even as we take it for granted, came crashing down. How? That isn’t made clear. Among the remnant that survived, in Britain at least, a new (old) order emerged, presided over by the Catholic Church. In their new calendar, 2025 becomes 666 (the biblical “number of the beast,” as described in Revelation 13:15–18). So 1468 is just a bit more than 800 years in the future from our present moment.

I hear some grumbling in the audience. Another grim post-apocalyptic wallow? No thanks. But Harris isn’t grim. His protagonist, a young priest named Christopher Fairfax, achieves a glorious if brief liberation (so we’re to see it), forsaking his vows and finding love in the arms of a beautiful and enigmatic woman. True, taken at face value, the ending of the story is not exactly upbeat, but Harris’s long view of human aspirations is clearly optimistic.

In that connection, a word about the title: The Second Sleep begins with two epigraphs, the first of which is taken from a fascinating book by A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime:

Until the close of the early modern era, Western Europeans on most evenings experienced two major intervals of sleep. . . . The initial interval of slumber was usually referred to as “first sleep.” . . . The succeeding interval was called “second” or “morning” sleep. . . . Both phases lasted roughly the same length of time, with individuals waking some time after midnight before returning to rest.

In the context of the novel, the implication is that, just as Europe suffered a period of centuries during which the church stultified freedom of thought and the progress of science (yes, there are still a number of highly educated people who believe in all seriousness that the “Dark Ages” really existed), so a societal collapse such as is imagined here might lead to another such dreary epoch. But however unwelcome that prospect, the underlying logic of Harris’s tale suggests, there would be, somewhere down the centuries, another renaissance. (Readers intrigued by the notion of “biphasic” sleep, as portrayed in the novel, might turn to a brief discussion of the phenomenon in Brian Fagan and Nadia Durrani’s witty book What We Did in Bed: A Horizontal History.)

Some early reviewers of The Second Sleep, which was published in the U.K. at the start of September, gave the impression that Harris had issued a rather straightforward warning against the threat of religious obscurantism and fanaticism. Fortunately the book is not so smugly complacent as that. The intellectual elites who (ahead of the disaster) foresaw the threat of just such a global collapse and tried to prepare for it, figures who seem heroic at first (in retrospect), turn out to have been every bit as capable of self-interested rationalization and sheer cruelty as the vile bishop, Fairfax’s superior, who comes to a satisfying end.

Expertly paced, artfully devious, The Second Sleep shows that Harris has learned a trick or two in the years since his triumphant 1992 debut. Strange that a seemingly foreboding novel should be so enjoyable, but such is the double-consciousness on which all fiction ultimately depends.

This article appears as “After the Apocalypse” in the December 22, 2019, print edition of National Review.

John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.

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