Books: The House Of Sleep

"A dreamy, Dickensian novel about patients at a clinic for the study of sleep disorders.

By Charles Taylor
Published April 2, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Befitting a book whose title carries with it a suggestion of dreams, Jonathan Coe's "The House of Sleep" has a mysteriousness that even its resolution -- in which it becomes clear that every moment has been preparation for all the moments that follow -- cannot dissipate. The setting is an English coastal manor. The chapters alternate between 1983, when the place is a university residence, and 1996, when it has become a clinic for the study of sleep disorders. The same characters exist in both periods, first as students, then, later, as patients and doctors, or in other more complicated permutations. Sleep, its abundance and absence, weaves its way through the novel as both subject and metaphor. Sarah is a narcoleptic prone to dreams she can't later distinguish from reality. Terry is a film critic who has replaced the need for sleep (and thus dreams) with movies. For the head of the clinic, Dr. Dudden, sleep is a disease to be eradicated.

Coe calls to mind the high silliness of Wodehouse farces and also Waugh's crueler social satire. But as with his last novel, the savage and majestic "The Winshaw Legacy," it's Dickens I thought of most often. The bloody satirical extremes that Coe sometimes goes to have nothing of Dickens' transcendent sentimentality, and there is a sense in which literature for Coe is gamesmanship. What brings Dickens to mind is that Coe, a wonderful storyteller, thinks of novels in terms of grand schemes where everything -- chance meetings, the sudden reappearance of fondly remembered objects -- finally all fit together. The most casual human exchanges become freighted with significance, the always-present possibility that, in throwaway moments, we completely reveal what sort of people we are.

For all the metaliterary touches Coe indulges in (touches that aim always to entertain), he's motivated primarily by rage and compassion. Margaret Thatcher and her legacy have provided him with as great a subject as the workhouses and orphanages did Dickens, first in "The Winshaw Legacy," and now in "The House of Sleep." Coe is writing about a society suffering the aftereffects of an experiment intended to separate poor from rich, weak from strong, conducted for the simple pleasure of being able to exert such power. In "The House of Sleep," Dr. Dudden is a pissant Thatcher, conducting his experiments to prove that sleep, like any other human need, is a weakness denoting those who need it -- those who need anything -- as losers in the law of natural selection.

"The House of Sleep" is full of people who have embraced Dudden's world, rejected it or are unexpectedly beginning to reject it. There's a special poignancy in a London banker describing her lover's suicide in these terms: "She finds a nice long cul-de-sac with a brick wall at the end, revs up to ninety miles an hour, and drives straight into it. Writes off the company BMW. Writes herself off into the bargain." The offhand beauty of those lines comes from the emotion the language cannot express, the mournful bitterness of the speaker as she realizes that a human being cannot be written off as a deduction. Fittingly, Coe's aesthetic response to his subject -- a world ruled by the ethic of weaken, divide, conquer -- is to speak in language that, while far from common, is completely accessible. Coe has an almost 19th century faith in the ability of a novel to immerse you in a created world that resonates in the actual world at every turn. His motto here might be "To dream, perchance to awaken."

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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