Having lost his job as an English teacher because of his insomnia, Justin opens an all-night café, an art and coffee joint that opens its doors to the citizens of the night. Immediately, he meets gangsters, a ghostly murder victim and her oblivious twin, and a cadre of homeless street performers. As images and reality combat in Justin’s mind, he struggles for the only thing that really matters to him: a good night’s sleep.
Justin’s insomnia, itself preternaturally powerful, has exhausted medical science. He is so much an insomniac that it is the largest part of his identity. He fails to sleep, thinks about sleeping, wishes he could sleep. When he pursues his ambitions, they are almost visionary. Few things that happen to him are strictly real, but nothing that happens to him is false either. He lives between two worlds: the awake and the asleep. This allows him to slip between possibilities and experience alternate realities.
The problem is that Justin has no internal reality gauge. He barely manages to define his “hallucinations” as real or unreal; when they occur, they interact with the world and with people who later claim to have no memory of events. He lives in a mixture that might be completely invented or an actual symptom of his wandering back and forth between universes.
Justin is a classic fairytale hero living in an urban fairytale landscape. His kindness to the hard-luck cases that frequent his business is rewarded in a manner that anyone familiar with the Brothers Grimm will recognize immediately. Without ever venturing into overt fantasy, Café Insomniac paints a fantasy landscape local to any city in the world in shades of sleepless deep grays and headlight yellow-whites.
Justin’s exhausted mind does not generate most of the main characters here, but it does generate their symbolic roles. A personality trait that caters well to the mythology may come across as overt, even overwhelming, even though Justin himself questions its objectivity, while other characterizations seem to have no basis in reality. (Though, of course, they continue to impact reality as though they were completely factual.)
The only character who completely inhabits Justin’s inner world—or is it an alternate universe altogether?—is Vince Moore, a ruthless gangster bent on owning Justin’s café. There are two equally intriguing possibilities regarding this villain. First of all, he could be a product of Justin’s mind. This would cast Justin as both protagonist and antagonist, a hero who rids himself of the internal self-doubt and powerlessness over insomnia that Vince represents. On the other hand, Vince could be a real denizen of an alternate reality, one that Justin accesses when his mind is sufficiently altered by lack of sleep. In this case, Justin still saved himself. By choosing the reality in which he was successful—by choosing the hero’s path through a series of noble actions that telegraph naturally in context—he chooses to exist in a reality where he wins, and where his villain is replaced by Justin’s father.
Especially notable is the sudden denouement, where Vince disappears for good: it occurs just as Justin’s harsh father, a businessman who financed his café, is revealed as weak, irresponsible, and pathetic. All the positive attributes that Justin attributed to his father transfer to the son, who accepts the change first with bewilderment, then with a muddied, instinctive understanding. That this first-person narrator himself has no idea what is happening to him gives the reader tremendous latitude. Mark Capell’s graceful reveals and overall masterful style credit the audience with the intelligence to understand Justin better than he understands it himself. This is cerebral fantasy at its finest, an example of where the genre should go and what savvy fantasy readers should all know about.
Café Insomniac is a slow, atmospheric read, well worth picking up. While the ending is initially frustrating in its vague resolution, re-reads reveal patterns that imbue the entire work with deep meaning. Outside of Charles De Lint, few works of fantasy achieve the immersive subtlety and verisimilitude that Capell has achieved in Café Insomniac This is an urban fable for readers who have moved beyond the sexy lady vampire hunters and TV-ready barfly werewolves to a place where dream and reality are just two sides of the same coin.
Anna Call reviews for a number of small online venues, including Isotropic Fiction, The Big Brown Chair, and ForeWord Reviews. In January 2014, she will also begin reviewing comic books for No Flying No Tights, a librarian-run comic book review site. She lives in Salem, Massachusetts.