(Portland, OR: Tin House Books, 2016)
Jim Krusoe’s surreal novel The Sleep Garden begins with four profound questions coupled to a whimsical statement of doubt:
Where are we?
How did we get here?
Where are we going?
And anyway, who lies sleeping here with us?
Wherever that is—
I mean—wherever we are.
I think therefore I’m somewhere—must be, right? In the coming pages Krusoe playfully uses postmodern narrative technique like a snow fence to catch drifting answers, and the answer that matters most is captured in one of the novel’s refrains: “Tocar: to touch” — to reach out across the divide that separates self from other and grasp after the physical and spiritual connection that sustains us all.
One of the novel’s settings is a subterranean apartment complex called the “Burrow”— six units, each with a study, bedroom, bath, a communal kitchen down the hall. Five souls are trapped down there, rattling around like thoughts in the subconscious mind, occasionally interfering with each other. From a control room somewhere on the surface, where the novel’s parallel plot line plays out, two staff members of the Technical Sector, the medulla oblongata of the Burrow, provide for the residents, monitoring the goings on through two way mirrors. It’s hard to say which is the best candidate for the protagonist, but the most poignant character for me is Heather, who at one point lies on her bed looking up at the mirror on her ceiling, thinking of her job as a sex line conversationalist—a reflection of her reflecting—her thoughts predictably turning to other regrets: her age, her looks, her passive disregard of Raymond, a Burrow neighbor obsessed with carving duck decoys. She really does seem to like him.
Heather is not alone in feeling alone. Madeline is the epicenter of the dramatic tension in the Burrow, as she has had a relationship with all the men, each of whom wants her back, except for the absent Louis, who turns out to be homeless on the surface, having lost his executive function. And except for Viktor of course, as he currently has her, but is worried he won’t much longer (which, as we men know, is almost like not having a woman at all). As important as companionship is, they need more out of existence, and so they cope with their isolation by maintaining a quirky meta-narrative: Raymond’s a recurrent dream of flying like a duck, Jeffery’s a television series called The Burrow, Viktor’s a wealth fantasy delighting in the pleasures of compound interest, Madeline’s a cooking show that parlays her passion for cooking into celebrity chef status, and Heather’s a children’s story of a ‘Ballerina Mouse,’ although she just can’t get a plot idea to stick. A writer’s writer, this one. “No, this is stupid,” she thinks about her idea to have the mouse abducted by aliens. Oh Heather! Creativity’s a bitch, isn’t it?
Pop culture narrative, specifically a short-lived television show called Mellow Valley, is the mystical force, the wherever-that-is—wherever-we-are that connects the Burrow and the wakeful world. Up there on the surface, somewhere in a different part of the city from Louis and the Technical Sector, an orphan named Junior, a former Mellow Valley cast member cum psychopath, obsesses over crossbows, and, in a funky twist, also a retired sea captain who consulted on one of the show’s seven episodes. I think Heather would understand Junior’s externalization of his emotional pain, as she is exquisitely aware of being caught in the liminal space between life and art, or even more precisely between words and sex. “People always believe that words will save them, but they are wrong,” she thinks, meaning sex talk, because at best “phone sex neurons” are the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave. (“WYASBIWYCIM” is not quite the same as tocar. Heather, I totally agree. You’ll have to read the book to see if you do too.)
The surface characters prove that isolation is a relative state, as they are even more solitary, their meta-fictions spinning above palpable despair. The Captain transforms his celebrity of calamity into a couple of endorsements and a run on the speaking circuit, which make his nominally impressive sea stories a touch sad, meaning pathetic. Junior, on the other hand, has lost his bearings, and nurtures a revenge fantasy to kill a representation of the father who has abandoned him—who theoretically could be the Captain, given his many dockings. The more pressing issue at the end of the novel is Junior hiding in the bushes at the edge of the Captain’s lawn with his crossbow while the Captain sits at his window with his .38 Walther. We know the Captain is a crack shot, and we know Junior is perfectly demented. I think I can tell you what happens. That is, I think I can point out some things that justify a prediction. I’m also pretty sure this isn’t the point.
“Not that it matters,” Krusoe writes for the novel’s anticlimactic last line.
As there is always the telling.
And the retelling.
Always what’s put in.
Always what’s left out.
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Trevor Payne teaches English at Radnor High School in suburban Philadelphia.