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The Boston Phoenix Bedtime Reading

Humor and pathos coexist uneasily in a novel about tourists in dreamland.

By Richard C. Walls

MARCH 16, 1998: 

THE HOUSE OF SLEEP, by Jonathan Coe. Alfred A. Knopf, 338 pages, $24.

British author Jonathan Coe's debut novel, The Winshaw Legacy (1995), was a sustained satire on Thatcherite England, personified by a decrepit family of upper-class grotesques, most of whom embodied some aspect of the appetites unleashed by the new order. The idea that things have gotten comically bad in Blighty is hardly a fresh one, but Coe's particular stroke of brilliance was to write the novel as a homage to two decidedly declassé genres of English entertainment -- the creaky and howlingly purple melodrama (as perfected by one of Coe's favorite authors, the all-but-forgotten Frank King) and the cheeky, lowbrow comedy films of the '50s and early '60s (the ones that didn't have Alec Guinness showing up in a variety of amusing disguises).

Legacy was a huge critical success, but also the sort of sui generis performance that even the most meretricious author would hesitate to repeat. It's no surprise, then, that The House of Sleep finds Coe moving away from the glittering surfaces of satire into deeper waters. It's somewhat disconcerting, however, to find him dragging along such huge chunks of Legacy-like tomfoolery -- for Sleep is essentially a swooningly romantic and rather serious tale. And while Coe's flashes of observational wit provide welcome respite from the dreamily sad proceedings, in this atmosphere the humor is sometimes jarring.

The novel is set primarily at Ashdown, a doughty fortress of a house perched on a seaside cliff. Once a university dorm, it is now a sleep disorder clinic, and the narrative seesaws between the house's past and present. Odd-numbered chapters are set in the early '80s and even-numbered ones in June 1996, when a group of former students has returned to the mansion -- drawn together by apparent happenstance and a variety of sleep-related afflictions.

At the story's heart is the narcoleptic Sarah, who not only falls asleep at inopportune times but also has vivid, if often mundane, dreams that she occasionally confuses with reality. A resident at the Ashdown student lodgings, she is having an affair with the appalling, brilliant, and quite mad Gregory, a fellow student who is so thoroughly cold a fish that his only aesthetic pleasure lies in discerning inappropriate tempi in performances of Baroque music. Gregory's mechanical bent, which extends to their sex life, soon sends her into the arms of Veronica, a lesbian whose character begins as a stereotype but becomes more real as we view her through Sarah's eyes.

Meanwhile, another student, Robert, has fallen in love with Sarah, and watches with growing despondency as her affair with Veronica progresses. Sarah is fond of Robert, but only as a friend; he, on the other hand, is so smitten that he's willing to read Simone Weil, a famously recondite author whom Veronica has foisted on her beloved. Coe handles this part of the story with unsentimental sensitivity. The moony Robert, who could easily have become comical, remains -- like the object of his affection -- a wonderfully poignant creation.

Flash forward to '96 and Ashdown, in its new incarnation as a clinic, turns out to be headed by the stridently insane Dr. Dudden -- who is, unsurprisingly, our old friend Gregory, all grown up and able to act out his fantasies of control. Gregory, unfortunately, is the novel's great failing. What is this caricature of a mad scientist doing flailing about in this story of love, dreams, and the failure of people to connect? And why are his scenes verbosely, turgidly comic while most of the other humor in the book is, if not subtle, at least not cartoonish?

A much more well-integrated running joke involves the haplessness of a character named Terry, who flits anxiously around the periphery of the story like a supporting actor who hasn't been given a copy of the script. In the student sections of the book, Terry is an idealistic young cinéaste who has become obsessed with an obscure Italian director named Salvatore Ortese (whose evolution from a Rossellini-like postwar neorealist into a more scabrous Pasolini-like auteur is one of Coe's funnier inventions). In the present-day sections, Terry has morphed into an insomniac film critic, punch-drunk with cynicism and writing empty words about hollow movies.

Of course, Terry isn't there merely for acidic comic relief: this is one of those stories where everybody has an impact on everybody else, in strange and usually unpredictable ways. In fact, given all the fancy footwork involved in moving the characters about, and the seemingly irrepressible outbursts of deflating spoofery that punctuate the narrative, one wonders if Coe wasn't a little embarrassed by the serious core of his story -- the story of a boy and girl, each given to dreaming too vigorously and a little too long. The House of Sleep is vastly entertaining, but it wants to be more -- and would have been, if its contrasting moods had stopped glaring at each other from the opposite corners of its author's sensibility.

Richard C. Walls is a freelance writer living in Michigan.

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