Literature Week is an event occurring this week on my blog. Everyday, I will read a book considered to be a "great" classic and review it.
For my seventh (and FINAL!) book I read Madeleine is Sleeping by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum.
When a girl falls into a deep and impenetrable sleep, the borders between her provincial French village and the peculiar, beguiling realm of her dreams begin to disappear: A fat woman sprouts delicate wings and takes flight; a failed photographer stumbles into the role of pornographer; a beautiful young wife grows to resemble her husband's viol. And in their midst travels Madeleine, the dreamer, who is trying to make sense of her own metamorphosis as she leaves home, joins a gypsy circus, and falls into an unexpected triangle of desire and love.
An extraordinary debut, Madeleine Is Sleeping received jubilant critical acclaim and was honored with a National Book Award nomination. Part fairy tale, part coming-of-age story, this "dream of a book" (Michael Cunningham) is an adventure in the discovery of art, sexuality, community, and the self.
Madeleine is Sleeping is perhaps the strangest, most bizarre book I've ever read. I'll be honest when I say it's going to be difficult for me to do this review because truthfully, I didn't understand 70% of it. This book is completely beyond me. I don't know if I need to perhaps reread it again before I can understand it properly or if I need to just give up now. It's the not fully comprehending part that makes it so difficult to sum up my thoughts--I'm not entirely sure what I did or didn't like, because I'm not sure of anything.
I am confused. This is the most confusing, mind-boggling book I've ever read.
I'm speechless. I don't know if it's because this book is so great, or because it hinds behind a facade of confusion in order to come off as great. That's the thing--it's almost like it's deliberately hard to grasp so that the reader is under the illusion that Bynum has created something ground-breaking. Maybe it is brilliant, maybe it isn't. I usually don't have too much trouble understanding books, so I'm suspect the lack of clarity is intended to wow the reader into abject awe instead of a rational state of mind. But I do have to give Bynum praise for creating something entirely experimental, fresh. That's what literary writing is in a lot of cases. A unique, breathtaking style. A plot that meanders and is difficult to comprehend. A novel that must be reread to understand it, that on each re-reading reveals something new that you hadn't noticed in the previous reading. And Madeleine is Sleeping possesses all those characteristics.
I'm still not entirely sure what Madeleine is Sleeping is about, plotwise. On one level, I understand that it's the story of a slumbering girl and her dreams. On another level I have no idea what it's supposed to say about the actual story--I suppose it's a coming-of-age? I really don't know. To me, the plot didn't progress at all. Just one fragmented chapter after another. I kept waiting for some powerful revelation, but I never got it. I read this novel in a daze, and nothing shocked me out of the daze. There were certainly some very bizzarre happenings in the novel--a "flatulent" man kept turning up. Madeleine kept stirring every few pages. Mother tells Madeleine she loves her. People sprout wings. Umm...I've already forgot a lot of the happenings. Forgotten like a dream. I think one of my biggest problems is that I couldn't grasp the underlying story. I could only read the lines, but not get a sense of where the book was going.
But I can confidently assess at least one aspect: Bynum's ability to play with a reader's mind. After reading this, it literally feels like my brain has been scrambled, altered somehow. I don't know how to explain exactly but Bynum manipulates the reader's conscious with her writing style. In Madeleine is Sleeping Bynum does not just narrate dreams--she literally recreates a dream for the reader. Reading this novel is like reading a dream. Insubstantial. Fleeting. Hard to understand. So quickly shifting and unpredictable, but so sure of itself.
It's masterful if you view it from that vantage point. A literary accomplishment, to recreate the inconsistencies of dreaming, the exact experience of sleep. It's like Bynum personally wrote down her own dreams--the random impossibilities, the half-truths, the grotesque imaginings and combined it into one book. I think a large part of the effect is in the form it is written in; Madeleine is Sleeping is structured how a volume of poetry would be. Each chapter is about the length and breadth of a poem--two pages at most, one line on a page at least. Each mini-mini-mini chapter has a title on top like a poem would. But this novel is not written in verse. It's written in prose form.
In that respect, I'm not sure if the prose rang true to me. Other reviewers have declared it to be "lyrical" and "beautiful". Certainly, it's well written. But it doesn't exactly match the form of the book--the brief half page vignettes are fragmented and disjointed, but the writing style is not exactly that. The syntax is pretty complex so it doesn't reflect the structure exactly. To me, the prose fell short--there are bits of beauty, but I really can't think of one instance where it completely blew me away. The prose just didn't fit with makeup of the book--it didn't feel quite right to me. But the writing does succeed in capturing a dreamlike mood and that is what is most important.
So, I'm not exactly sure if I'd recommend this book to everyone. It's a surreal reading experience, certainly. It's different. If you like literary fiction to begin with, if you're interested in experimental novels, than this might be worth picking up. Otherwise, I'd probably pass on it. I can only voice vague feelings of discontent, since I'm not sure what to criticize. I can only decisively praise the exactness of the dreamlike rendering of a novel.
Teenage Ignoramus Comment:
I am utterly bamboozled. Really. So glad I haven't yet had to write an analysis paper on this in Lit class, I'd definitely fail. Lol.
My Rating on the Classics Scale: I give it...a 7/10? I don't know. I'm so confused.
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