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Powells.com
Saturday, February 25th, 2006


 

The House of Sleep

by Jonathan Coe

He Put a Spell on Me

A review by Georgie Lewis

"And so have you read anything by Jonathan Coe?" I asked Julian Barnes, at the close of our interview last week, after the microphone was off and he faced a mountain of books to sign. "I haven't," he replied and looked at me and said, "But I did notice a particular gleam in your eyes every time you mentioned him." And I blushed and I stammered that I'd really only mentioned him in passing. Twice.

I don't make a habit of recommending books to authors, let alone authors whose work ranks among some of the best being written today (I have already, somewhat hyperbolically, assured readers who visit Powells.com that Julian Barnes's Arthur and George will probably be the best novel of the year), but here I was sharing my literary crush with someone whose intellect I'm so greatly impressed by. I told Julian Barnes I can still simply open The House of Sleep to the last page and weep. And actually, it seemed apropos to speak to Barnes about Coe for I am also reminded of Barnes's literary dexterity, sly wit, and his fierce intelligence when I read Coe's books.

The House of Sleep is both darkly funny and hyperactive in plot, but at the same time remarkably resonant and poignant. It is set in a gloomy Victorian manor called Ashdown situated in a small university town on the British coast. It once served as student housing and was home to Terry, Sarah, and Robert, as well as part-time residence for Sarah's boyfriend Gregory Dudden. Manipulative and creepy Dudden is fascinated to the point of obsession about Sarah's unusual sleep patterns.

Twelve years later Ashdown is a clinic for those suffering sleep abnormalities, and the aforementioned Dudden is the controversial doctor who runs the mysterious hospital. Terry literally hasn't slept for years, and ends up a test subject at Ashdown. Sarah's return to Ashdown is longer coming although she now battles narcolepsy with such frequency that it is only a matter of time before she is reunited with the enigmatic Dudden. And Robert, who disappeared from the house twelve years ago, has transformed his life due to his devastating unrequited love for Sarah. So many threads run through this novel that it is hard to synopsize, let alone list without beginning to sound absurd. Metaphors, themes, and a few dramatic plot twists run the gamut and encompass, but are not confined to, creativity, dreams and sleep disorder, Lacanian psychological theory, sexuality, love and longing, medical research, the British health system, and even a detailed investigation of an obscure (fictitious) Italian film director.

How does Coe tie these all together without, at any time, dropping the ball? Well, his structure is innovative and acrobatic. Pay attention to the author's note at the beginning of the book where Coe advises that the odd-numbered chapters of the book are set mainly in the years between 1983-1984 and the even-numbered chapters are set in the last two weeks of June 1996. The past and present continually brush up against each other in this split time-frame construction and each of six sections are cleverly linked with a run-on sentence: the end of one section leaves an open-ended sentence which involves one character, and the next section and chapter open by finishing this sentence, but twelve years later, and with a different mood and setting. This sounds like a clever flourish, and perhaps it is, but it is not something I would recommend many writers attempting (in fact, now that it has been done, no writer need do it again). Luckily Coe's strong understanding of his complex characters is the real binding of the novel and this stylistic device is utilized intelligently and with minimum distraction to the heart that beats amid the story. And what a strong and loving heart it is, laced with a genuine romantic streak.

Like most Coe novels, in The House of Sleep you'll meet a variety of characters, so vividly drawn that a novel dedicated to each and every character would not go astray. Fans of Coe's Rotter's Club and its sequel, The Closed Circle, already know how he manages to create a ménage of people whose lives are inextricably entwined by virtue of proximity, family, or profession and whose characters are, invariably, imbued with human frailty. Coe writes his female characters with real grace and understanding and can really nail time and place. Sarah's experiences with university politics of the early eighties, where feminism and lesbianism are so politicicized (and polarizing to a certain extent) really rang true to someone like me who attended university at a similar time. My god, I can practically smell the toasted ham sandwiches and heaped ashtrays in this scene involving some young students discussing drama versus film studies, the zeitgeist, and whether "all men are potential rapists."

"And then, this whole conviction of yours that you're in possession of some kind of absolute truth: I... well I find that a very male quality, is all I can say."

"I am male," the student pointed out.

"It's also significant that Pinter is your favorite playwright."

"Why's that significant?"

"Because he writes plays for boys. Clever Boys."

"But art is universal: all real writers are hermaphrodite."

"Ha!" Veronica laughed with delighted contempt. She stubbed out her cigarette...

I chose this small passage mainly because I like to think of one of Coe's characters talking about gender and writers being hermaphrodite (and, yes, these are more themes that are explored in this novel). Not only does Coe discuss his themes via his characters, but his writing -- his prose in all its emotional generosity -- becomes part of the theme. If writing maketh the man, then I do indeed have a crush on Mr. Jonathan Coe.


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