Book review: Night Work by Thomas Glavinic

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NIGHT WORK Thomas Glavinic Canongate, £8.99

NORMALLY, if a critic wrote that a book caused insomnia, it would be taken as slightly hyperbolic praise. Thomas Glavinic's new novel, Night Work, gave me insomnia in the sense that I was too scared to go to sleep.

The premise is incredibly simple. Jonas is a young Viennese man with an undemanding and unfulfilling job as an adviser on interior design, and a girlfriend, Marie, who has gone to visit her sister in Scotland for a few days. On July 4 he wakes up, and is surprised by how quiet the streets are. He can't get Marie on her mobile. The television is only showing static snow, on every channel.

As he ventures out, he finds that the world is deserted. Every single living being has vanished. Something apocalyptic has happened, and for some reason Jonas has survived it.

As a setting it is strong on intrigue, although one might think it has limited potential for drama. Nevertheless, Glavinic makes Jonas's purgatorial predicament as gripping as any thriller. Jonas leaves messages scribbled on chalk boards, Post-it notes and graffiti to let any other 'survivors' know that he exists. He searches for any remaining others, or at least an explanation for the disappearances. And then the book gets seriously frightening.

Jonas finds a Polaroid pgotograph of himself sleeping. A knife is discovered stuck into the wall of his room. The number of paintings hanging on a wall changes. He has increasingly bad and mysterious dreams. Tiny clues point to "someone's lingering imprint" – and the horror is not that he is alone, but that he is not alone. Thankfully, Glavinic doesn't go down the route of a film such as I Am Legend – the real scares here are purely psychological, rather than clichd zombies. As his paranoia increases, Jonas sets up video cameras, ostensibly to "catch" a fleeting glimpse of the enigmatic other.

What the video reveals is truly shocking: although he has no memory of it, his sleeping self seems to be pursuing another agenda. With nobody to turn to, Jonas has to deal with "the Sleeper", who grins at the camera and pulls a finger like a knife across "his" throat.

That's when the insomnia set in for me, anyway. The games between Jonas and the Sleeper become more and more surreal and eerie, and Jonas embarks on a melancholy quest to find Marie – melancholy because in his heart of hearts he knows that there will be nothing to find. The novel could easily have stalemated itself, but Glavinic keeps back one final, heart-stopping revelation to terrorise the reader.

Night Work is quite self-consciously philosophical. The date of the disappearance is ironically symbolic: Independence Day. Jonas is, suddenly, completely independent – he can steal cars, fire shotguns and cross borders with impunity. But he is also made starkly aware of how dependent each individual in a consumer society is. He ekes out ready-meals, video cassettes and beers, knowing that when they run out, no one will replace them.

The solitude makes Jonas prone to musing – about God, identity, love, death and memory. None of this jars or seems superfluous to the narrative. The combination of lyricism, philosophy and edginess was also seen in Glavinic's debut novel – Carl Haffner's Love Of The Draw, a brisk and powerful portrait of a chess prodigy. It is also typical of two of his fellow Austrian writers, the late Thomas Bernhard and the Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek. Like them, Glavinic displays a strong streak of misanthropy, and a subtle engagement with Austria's refusal to face its buried past, and its complicity with Nazism.

In the light of various recent events in Austria – the Unterweger, Kampusch and Fritzl cases – Night Work becomes even more frightening. It is a book full of prisons: Jonas says "your life is a cage" and talks about everyone being "trapped in that life". Austria itself is a form of prison, and when Jonas thinks about his country, he says "Austria didn't change much when somebody dies".

It's far too simplistic to think of writers as privileged conduits to the national id – as if any such thing could exist (although I note in passing that Jelinek has been criticised for her "hysterical portraits of Austrian perversity"). Rather, there's a wakefulness to the zeitgeist in the greatest of authors, and on the evidence of Night Work, Glavinic is a truly great author, not just a truly great Austrian author. At least, that's what I was thinking in the watches of the night.

• Thomas Glavinic will be at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, August 14, 4.30pm

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