To Sleep as Animals

By Douglas W. Milliken


Publication Studio
September 2014

Reviewed by Justin Thurman


About three-quarters through Douglas W. Milliken's To Sleep as Animals, the novel's protagonist, Ben Nigra, does something completely out of character: he starts making sense. By this point, we have witnessed much of his tour of Northern Nevada, followed him from Lake Tahoe to the rubble of abandoned mines. He has interviewed a withering prostitute, tracked non-descript "grey men" who heist garbage cans full of expensive Russian vodka, and has slept with his cousin, El, whose major concern is that Ben's "version of adulthood [. . .] does not seem like much fun." From stilted interactions and demonic dreams, we have tried and failed to infer the goal of this man's mission.

We come close several times. On one occasion, fellow diners at a sushi bar pry from him a description of his research. Ben explains his focus is "how certain phenomena can be reshaped [. . . .] How vast the ambiguities are in how any value can be judged."

An unnamed woman says precisely what we are thinking: "What does that even mean?"

Nevertheless, we stick with our beleaguered researcher until he finds himself limping through the dark mouth of a canyon. Here, Ben finally evaluates something—himself—and the effect is almost revelatory:

Ben feels the burden of his selfhood. In this valley, soaked and broken and reminded again of what he is and is not. A researcher failing at his research. Unwilling to believe in what his evidence proves. Denying what he finds in the light in lieu of the sage ambiguity of the dark. At best an alcoholic and at worst a somnambulistic narcoleptic, an amnesiac who doesn't know what he doesn't know. The sort of man who consorts with dim strangers while avoiding the people he loves.

In other words, Ben realizes what the reader has known for quite a bit: he is baffled by his purpose. And just when meaning feels like it's riding to the rescue, Ben Nigra slips out of consciousness again, "failing and failing and failing," sopping wet and on his way to collect another dim stranger, another fragment for the swelling index of clues in his motel room.

Such is the ebb and flow of To Sleep as Animals. Pitched somewhere between Denis Johnson, Maurice Blanchot, and Memento, the saga of Ben Nigra's summer in Reno plays games with the senses and the reader's patience. What saves the enterprise is Milliken's commitment to the game. The obfuscation is intentional, an attempt to build a human vector for a place and all its broken, wandering organisms.

As a stylist, Milliken relies on precise lists of fragments and details. The Circus Circus customers are "Serious men in leather Stetsons. Blue-haired women in teams. Marlboros and Virginia Slims. Crown Royal and coffee brandy." Ben's room is "orange and brown decor. A colorless, worn-down shag carpet. A broken TV and spring-shot mattress." The accrual of descriptions moves us through the protagonist's miasma, a quest that furnishes more questions than it does answers. The text often approaches a character's specific motive or somebody clearly stating a purpose. But it lets the clarity to be gained from such a concession slip away. Like Nigra, we wake up disoriented in a new place, more confused than before. The question becomes, then, how long before we are no longer curious? How far will we trail an aimless navigator with a loose grasp of direction?

When Ben's research trip begins, it seems like it has something to do with poisoned water or a government cover-up. Nevada is, after all, the home of nuclear tests and underground fallout storage. He meets Dr. Hanover who is so hostile and confounding, he must be hiding something. Hanover's research assistant, Catherine, is far more helpful, but like us, she wants to know what Ben is up to, why he's there, and for whom he is working. Hers is the first of several exchanges in which Milliken supplies a proxy for our confusion. In all of these moments, Ben answers with subterfuge or questions of his own. With Catherine, he simply insists he's not conducting an investigation. She eventually abandons him on a day hike, exasperated by his tendency to roam without purpose and sleep as his cat once did, "to erase the most pointless moments of life and feel healthier for it."

It would be one thing if Ben played coy because he was protecting classified information, if he were a spy. As the story progresses, however, it is not clear he even knows what he's doing. His uncertainty is partially attributed to his random fits of sleep. "[W]hether he likes or not," Milliken writes, "[Ben's] body sometimes calls the shots." Narcolepsy is one of Ben Nigra's many special afflictions. Alcoholism is another.

Some undiagnosed social disorder may still be another. Our most memorable monument to Ben's weirdness is Ben's first-grade dream of having a nocturnal emission that comes to life, lays an egg, and births his grandmother. Naturally, Ben regales his parents with daily interpretations of this dream until his father sets the rules for proper conduct: "Don't touch others. Don't let them touch you. If you have a weird thought, keep it to yourself." The chapters that begin with these childhood flashbacks are refreshing evidence that our hero has struggled to fit in forever. As odd as it is, his past humanizes him and is a welcome digression from his twisted, aimless present.

His shadow benefactors back in Syracuse chastise him by telegram. "Our concern is that you are desperate to disprove what we have sent you west to prove," reads the mysterious cardstock that appears on his motel room's door. "We did not mail you to your cousin's doorstep for nothing, Mister Nigra." His cousin makes excuses for him in their interactions with strangers. Hitchhikers, cabdrivers, and a gambling miscreant named Earl all enable his dithering. As a hero, Ben comes together only to melt.

All we can reasonably decipher is the landscape. To Sleep as Animals joins a growing list of work committed to untangling the Nevada removed from the Las Vegas strip. Like Claire Vaye Watkins's story collection Battleborn, Milliken is interested in the rural, the northern desert, and the people who choose to do more than just visit for debauched weddings, weekend benders, and Burning Man. Milliken's Reno is stiflingly seedy, "America's foremost bastion for pointless endeavors." It rustles with pimps, hookers, guns, and disembodied female voices begging to be untied.

Without a narrative mechanism to expose our characters' calculus, the city and its surrounding flora and fauna become the primary motivators. Milliken excels at making these descriptions fresh and frightening. A rock formation looks to Ben like "A Halloween death mask [. . .] two blind eyes in the vacant face of some forgotten thing." The Tahoe Indian pipe, an unusual plant species that thrives from its symbiotic relationship with a fungus, looks like something between a "venereal Martian creature" and "a battered penis." Trees are empty and "knifed-up." Nobody's backyard has a functional swing set.

Toward the end of the novel, a scene at the annual Hot August Nights car show unfurls on Reno's strip, Virginia Street, "where the air is open and the hot rods thunder like gods prowling along the tar." As Ben's cousin El puts it, "for just a few nights, it chooses to be like this. Like the whole city is lost in some ridiculous, surreal dream someone's grandfather is having." And then we reach an intelligible conclusion: it is impossible not to be the weird kid in Milliken's Reno. To Sleep as Animals is a mystery about characters succumbing to their spaces, how such a rugged landscape sustains so many strange and dangerous lives.