Monday, April 02, 2007

Dream Lives

Today's been one of those days where you wake up a bit off and are a step behind for the rest of the day. Just feeling odd. I got up early due to a decidedly creepy nightmare. Can't remember the details but it involved sexually molested children and malevolent curtains hung around a canopy bed. The curtains were the ones I had in my room when I was in middle school. Red, with large multicolored flowers printed on them. I had a matching comforter as well. Quite ugly, in retrospect. This all took place in a bedroom that was completely familiar, but no room I've ever had. And standing in the middle of the room was Dark Phoenix removing my mother's heart with her bare hand and placing it in her own semi-corporeal chest. It wasn't actually my mother at all though, but some unfamiliar woman with bobbed blond hair. There was no blood. The not-mother's chest just opened and then closed around the empty cavity.

It was at this point that I woke up and felt that I couldn't go back to sleep. I went to get a glass of water and when I got back in bed Pyramus came to lie on my chest and purr, no doubt in an effort to charm me into giving him breakfast earlier. Much to his chagrin, I proved temporarily uncharmable and he was forced to eat breakfast at his regular time.

This probably isn't terribly interesting. Certainly I'm rarely interested in hearing about people's dreams, although it seems to be something we all like to talk about. I think it's something about the tortured logic of dreams--the inexorability of them and the fact that they make sense while they occur and then fall back into confusion upon waking. It's that feeling that makes dreams interesting for me. And a very difficult sense to convey to the reader or listener.

Which brings me to the fact that I've recently read The Dream Life of Sukhanov. It's a good book, and an interesting book. It's also a book that feels designed to delight critics. Of course, that is done successfully when someone writes a book that is genuinely worthy of praise. Nevertheless, it feels like there is something cynical, if not in the book itself than in the packaging of it. The Washington Post Book World apparently wrote that, "it breathes new life into American literary fiction," which is precisely the kind of hyperbole publishing companies love to slap on front covers. The back cover and front sales, meanwhile, contain the mandatory comparisons to Nabokov and Bulgakov.

The cover itself is, in my opinion, brilliantly designed. The indeterminate horizon where still water meets grey sky, the surrealism of the ladder going to nowhere and held up by nothing, the lack of color, the generic looking, middle aged man with his back to's a slick presentation. It's also truly indicative of what you find between the covers. The central character in the book is a man who's walled off his interior life for the sake of exterior comforts to the point where he no longer even sees what he has done. A brilliant artist, in order to survive in the Soviet state where artists are seen as dangerous and must be controlled, he has repudiated everything he truly believes about art.The narrative takes place in a slippery place where meanings shift and the border between past and present, reality and fiction, is indeterminate. As Sukhanov descends into madness and a kind of waking dream-life the reader comes to understand the awful, and perhaps meaningless, sacrifice he has made.

The book is heavy-handed. Many of it's secondary characters exist as two dimensional cutouts or symbols. There are times when Grushin appears as though she's trying to club you over the head with her meaning. At the same time though, it's a terribly sad book. Sukhanov does and says bad things but is a not a bad man; he's someone you want to succeed even as he spirals down the road to insanity. And in this aspect at least, which to my mind is the most important, the book is a complete success. It's a wonderful portrait of a man who doesn't have the strength to do what he was meant to do and the ways in which that destroys him.


Kirsten said...

eclair puffs are being made this weekend for easter. you and wendy are welcome to puffs next week :)

Meg said...

Just call and let us know and we'll totally be there. Yum.