Laura Chain lost her virginity on New Years Eve 1999 and was christened The First Woman of the Twenty-First Century by her now deceased punk rock singer boyfriend Johnny Enzyme. In her early-thirties and living in New York, she feels the magic of her youth fading away, until she meets John Halo, a mysterious British agent who gives her a chance to discover her life’s true meaning.
The story begins when Halo asks if she would help investigate Gregory Walden, a womanizing investment banker suspected of money laundering. Laura is intrigued by Halo’s proposal, hoping it might reconnect the fragments of her lost youth and create parallels with Marlene Dietrich in Dishonored and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, activities worthy of The First Woman of the Twenty-First Century.
When she agrees to investigate the charming Gregory she must deceive her current boyfriend, biker/ex-con Jonathan Mace. With a romance that threatens to redefine her sense of self she is forced to confront her true loyalties, while discovering that Halo has hidden motives, the nature of which she vows to discover.
Stylistically comparable to Martin Amis’ London Fields and Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, The Sleep is darkly comic and rhapsodic in turns, a trenchant exploration of letting go of the past and confronting a new millennium dominated by cyber terrorism, bank fraud, and the rise of a new world order run by billionaire oligarchs.
New York opened its mouth and exhaled into the sour trombone blare of the dying day. It was dusk and the city lights danced a fatalistic foxtrot across the cigar-smoke skyline as the buildings gradually dissolved into mere outlines and finally gave way to nothingness, devouring the humidity that made everything seem to matter even less than it had the day before. Laura Chain let her i-phone slip out of her fingers and fall into her lap as she took notice of at the middle-aged man sitting across the table from her. He had just approached her through the whiskey-glass clatter of Selbey’s and taken a seat beside her. There was something languidly nocturnal about him that was both perilous and intriguing. The pianist in the corner was playing a gutted and transposed version of a song she thought she recognized from an old piece of vinyl tucked away somewhere in her apartment but couldn’t quite put her finger on, his white-gloved hands sliding like liquid felt over the ivory keyboard.
“Are you alone?” the man asked in a quietly intelligent way that was rare in New York. From his accent he was obviously British. Laura let her gaze rise to a baroque chandelier hanging in all its precarious glory from the ceiling.
“Yes,” she said in the shrill whisper of a woman raising a curtain of defense. “I usually come here alone.”
“Do you mind if I join you?”
“It seems you already have.” Laura had seen all manner of men in Selbey’s – Frank Light, Frank Mild, Frank Uncut, Frank Classic, and even Frank Menthol – but somehow this one seemed different.
“My knees still hurt from my flight,” he said. “They say you should always get up and take small walks on an overseas flight to prevent thrombosis.”
“I wouldn’t know. But not that I haven’t wanted to find out.”
“You should really come to the UK some time. I’m from London and don’t know what I would do if I could never go back. But I guess that’s what everyone says about their home town. That, and how much they want to leave it! People can be so contradictory sometimes, can’t they?”
“Yes,” she agreed with a cautious grin.
He went on to explain how he was new in “America”, as though somehow sitting there in front of her in New York meant he was simultaneously in all parts of the country, and how he had come to “explore” it in a way that made it seem he fancied himself a kind of modern Christopher Columbus. When he was finished, he stood up and made a direct line to the bar. He came back and set two double scotches on the table like pieces from an arcane game meant to be placed exactly where he had just put them and nowhere else.
He looked at her without saying anything as though prompting further conversation with an excess of silence. There was something stern and official, perhaps even military, in his hard weathered face. Yet in the depths of his eyes and the soft lines that emanated from their outer edges she saw glimpses of a lonely man desperately seeking comfort and security. Hardly the modern day explorer he had just proffered. Perhaps he was on a business venture, or maybe, like many other men his age – forty-eight she guessed by his lightly-frosted black hair, etched forehead, and London Fog raincoat – came to New York to escape the specter of a woman he once loved.
“Laura Chain,” she said as she held out her hand. He took her palm in a chivalrous way and let it slip gently back to the table.
“Chain?” he then said in the manner of a question.
“Yes,” she replied. “As in the metal links used to pull boats and keep bridges from falling in the water.”
“Or mail,” he said ironically. He spoke with his lips close together, as though he was trying to hide the slight smile on his face. “I’ve never met a woman who wasn’t fascinated by the stuff.”