A Mournful Mystery On England's Shore

'The House Of Sleep' cover
The House of Sleep
By Jonathan Coe
Vintage
Paperback, 352 pages
List price: $14.95

Narcoleptics and insomniacs contend with obsessive dreamers and a scientist who thinks sleep is a socialist disease — the "great leveler" of the strong and the weak — in Jonathan Coe's 1999 novel The House of Sleep.

Set in a former college dormitory that has since been turned into an institute for sleeping disorders, Coe's novel brings together a hodgepodge of characters whose lives have been shaped by their curious relationships to slumber. Among the cast are Sarah, a narcoleptic whose affliction has destroyed both her lovers; Robert, an emotional drifter who disappears shortly after college graduation; and Terry, a film critic suffering from insomnia.

Moving easily between the early 1980s (when most of his characters are in college) and the mid 1990s (after years of separation and loss have transformed them), Coe creates an interplay between his characters' younger and older selves. The beauty of the novel emerges in the shifts of time and in the way these failed, fractured people rediscover and, often unwittingly, help one another. Friends and acquaintances interlock in a serendipitous tapestry of casual remarks and overheard gossip — a tragic romance intersects with a collegiate sexual awakening, which, in turn, leads into a murder mystery. Ultimately, these fragile chains of human interaction add up to an unexpectedly unified whole, in a style that recalls the fiction of Virginia Woolf.

Late in the novel, a Lacanian psychotherapist writes an article about a narcoleptic's sleep trauma, asserting, "Language is a traitor, a double agent who slips across borders without warning in the dead of night. It is a heavy snowfall in a foreign country, which hides the shapes and contours of reality beneath a cloak of nebulous whiteness."

But is the psychotherapist referring to language or to sleep itself? Though slumber betrays and conceals in The House of Sleep, it also provides a lens into the truth. Racing toward her lost lover, impelled by information revealed during a patient's sleep-talking, Dr. Madison worries whether her newfound knowledge can be trusted. "Yes, of course it could," she concludes. "For in the midst of all this confusion, all these unsettling convergences between past and present, at least one incontrovertible truth remained. Nobody told lies in their sleep."

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