Ricci's latest novel, Sleep, inspired by his own sleep disorder, is really more a fun text book on the latest brain research and the blind use of powerful drugs to alter--and possibly restructure (who knows?)--the brain. It's like a 'don't smoke' ad that's actually informative and hilarious, with a classic 'death of a salesman' plot moving it along.
The complexity of the brain and the perilousness of the chemical warfare we casually inflict on it is far greater than, say, sending a man around the moon or deploying star wars 'defense' systems. Imagine your brain: a ball the size of a large fist, crammed with billions of neurons, brain cells, a tiny Mission Control module, with dozens of centres, some highly specialized, some working in tandem with others, a fantastic electrical grid.
The more scientists reveal about the workings of the brain, the more questions arise. Enter profit-hungry pharmaceutical companies, developing ever new drugs, testing them as quickly as the lax laws allow, where concern for long term effects (there could be many, far reaching, varying among various brains) is cavalierly ignored.
Ricci portrays cocky university prof David, living off the fame of his first publication, Masculine Histor y, merrily bedding his infatuated students and faculty lovelies, bored with his career and his increasingly shrewish wife, until his life falls apart. He suffers from what seems a combination of narcolepsy (falling asleep at inappropriate times) and insomnia, his doctor Becker happy to ply him with "every sort of psychotropic, pushing his dosages to the upper limits with each new cocktail as if he were an expendable specimen in a rat trial. Time-released drugs with delivery systems as sophisticated as an ICBM's."
*Provigil, a so-called smart drug (stumbled on by chance, mechanism unknown, but already in wide use among pilots and soldiers) promising 72 hours of wakefulness at a stretch;
*Prozac To anti-depress. "In the hope of quelling the shudder he keeps feeling in this brain stem that presages one of his collapses. The drug needs days or weeks to rewire his circuits before it kicks in, tough in the usual way of these crossover brain drugs. No one seems sure why it works at all." But at the expense of his sex drive, which depresses, requiring more Prozac or "
*Sodium oxybate The truly magic potion that both boosts the sex drive and slow-wave sleep (the best kind), "though there is some question whether what it induces is actual sleep or only an eerie synthetic version of it, something that reads as sleep in the monitors, but may be a new state of consciousness unknown in nature" -- like americium or californium on the periodic table. Also known as the "date rape" drug.
Ricci cuts to the quick, sketching for the layman startling recent discoveries about our inner universe. Operations on epileptics severing their left and right brain hemispheres show the brain houses within them "actual warring consciousnesses, each distinct from the other, down to level of political affiliations, food preferences, religious beliefs."
One side dominates, so "everyone carries within them a shadow self that dogs the dominant one like a stalker, always seeking an outlet, awaiting its chance under cover of dark." The left hemisphere is more or less the 'conscious' mind, the right hemisphere -- the 'unconscious', though the reality is far more subtle.
The waking mind is a place of merest invention, winnowing the billions of points of data the universe emits every second down to the handful of isolate bits it needs to create the dream it calls the world. All the excess that the brain has no use for, the colours it doesn't register, the smells and sounds, the inconceivable worldviews and extra dimensions, are like the universe's dark matter, invisible, unknown, though the very pith and meaning of things might reside in it and every accepted truth be overthrown.