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Dreams Can Be Deadly

The Nightwalker may not make perfect sense once it concludes, but its level of engagement, imagination, and self-reflection makes it unforgettably haunting,

The Nightwalker

Publisher: Pegasus
Length: 337 pages
Author: Sebastian Fitzek
Price: $25.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-02

German novelist and journalist Sebastian Fitzek must be one of the most prolific modern thriller writers. Born in 1971, his first book, Die Therapie, arrived in 2006, and since then, he’s averaged almost two a year (plus had his third work, 2008’s Das Kind -- The Child -- turned into a film in 2012).

Easily one of his most popular works is 2013’s Der Nachtwandler, which was recently translated as The Nightwalker for English-speaking audiences. A “psychological thrill-ride” about “an insomniac wondering if his nighttime excursions have turned into something beyond his imagination”, the hardcover is a consistently gripping and surprising mystery whose grisly visuals, ceaseless tension, emotional poignancy, and inventive narrative methods help forgive some of its confusing nature and implausible reveals. Although, like its protagonist, you could lose your mind trying to make complete sense of it all, you’ll surely be entranced every step of the way.

Obviously, The Nightwalker plays into the greatest fear of those who suffer from somnambulism: doing bizarre, if not horrendous, things while semi-conscious and then being unable to remember any of it once awoken. In fact, the author takes that premise to its utmost violent, perverse, and harrowing limit, covering elements of Fight Club, Donnie Darko, Inception, and Rosemary’s Baby (not necessarily in the ways you might think) under a wonderfully Lynchian blanket. As the official synopsis states:

As a young man, Leon Nader suffered from insomnia. As a sleepwalker, he even turned to violence during his nocturnal excursions and had psychiatric treatment for his condition. Eventually, he was convinced he had been cured -- but one day, years later, Leon's wife disappears from their apartment under mysterious circumstances. Could it be that his illness has broken out again? In order to find out how he behaves in his sleep, Leon fits a movement activated camera to his forehead -- and when he looks at the video the next morning he makes a discovery that bursts the borders of his imagination. His nocturnal personality goes through a door that is totally unknown to him and descends into the darkness...

Every story like this rests on the relatability and depth of its main character, and fortunately, Leon is immediately and perpetually sympathetic and complex. For instance, his journey begins [POSSIBLE SPOILER] when he wakes up to find that his photographer wife, Natalie, who was horribly abused by someone in the night, is fleeing their home while ignoring his pleas for an explanation. Of course, you feel bad for them for obvious reasons -- as well as for the marital hardships that preceded this moment -- but then there’s the added duality of Leon feeling responsible for her pain and victimized by his own helplessness and inability to comprehend what’s happening. This conflict is at the heart of The Nightwalker, with readers delving further and further into Leon’s cognitive dissonance of seeing himself as both an actor and a target of his illness. After all, there’s a profound sadness in knowing that you may be unintentionally yet unavoidably hurting the person you love most.

Speaking of their marital woes, Fitzek does a great job of using backstory to develop their relationship up to that point; similar to Gone Girl, we get glimpses of how a formerly burgeoning romance devolved into its present malfunction. Along the same lines, it’s never hidden that Natalie has some amorality of her own, as the following flashback (and one of the most shocking passages in the book) shows. In it, Leon and Natalie (still dating) are at a restaurant with her parents and her father, Hector, joins Leon in the bathroom to tell him about her proclivities:

She likes it dirty... I wouldn’t marry my daughter off to some uptight faggot. She needs a proper stallion... Like mother, like daughter. It’s no secret that Natalie was unbelievably horny even from an early age. And so blatant about it... I didn’t want to see it, Leon. But Natalie made it impossible for me not to. That’s how I know what she gets off on. Handcuffs, collars. Pulled really tight, like on a mangy dog.

Not only does this add intrigue and character to the main prey of the plot (well, aside from Leon), but it implies that there may be more going on beneath the surface. Complement that with a series of colorful neighbors, as well as Leon’s childhood therapist, Dr. Volwarth, and partner-in-architecture, Sven (who fits the archetypical role of the concerned best friend very well), and you have many multilayered players who enhance the author’s macabre and psychologically invasive tale.

The Nightwalker wouldn’t work at all if it didn’t make readers feel as uncertain about reality and determined to uncover the truth as its protagonist does. Rest assured, though, that one of the book’s greatest feats is the ease and consistency with which it sucks you in and establishes its dissociative penchants. Outside of its strange foreshadowing prologue and the Cronenbergian cockroach (Morphet) that continuously talks to Leon, things get increasingly bizarre, riveting, and intricate as it goes, to the point where just about every chapter ends on a farfetched yet fitting cliffhanger. Also, Fitzek helps convey Leon’s blossoming madness by italicizing his thoughts, thereby letting him channel the reader’s reactions into his own concerns (“As he fastened the camera to the headband with the Velcro tape, he felt himself starting to get sleepy. But I already slept for an eternity, damn it. What’s wrong with me?”).

Unfortunately -- and unsurprisingly -- the narrative eventually gets a bit too confusing for its own good. As Leon probes further, crazier (no pun intended) events and explanations arise, and no matter how thematic they may be (you’re meant to feel as disoriented as he does), the fact is that a story starts to fall apart if your spectators can’t follow along. This is most apparent once Shyamalan-esque revelations and twists are dished out near the end. Simultaneously clever and convoluted, you’ll think the final chapters of The Nightwalker are either brilliant or, well, bullshit.

Its slightly perplexing and unsatisfying resolutions notwithstanding, The Nightwalker is undoubtedly tense, moving, and creative, conjuring several other staples of pop culture without overtly copying any of them. In that way, it’s subtly familiar yet majorly original and striving, with the kind of gruesome depictions and elaborate plotting that modern mystery audiences relish. Best of all, it reflects our own inner demons and taboo interests by showcasing exaggerated acts of [sexual] violence and conflicts of self-awareness and identity. It may not make perfect sense or offer complete catharsis once it concludes, but its level of engagement, imagination, and self-reflection makes it unforgettably haunting.


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