The Grammar of Dreams

piano dreams

I once heard a dream analyst speak of a weekly group he’d conducted, where attendees shared their dreams in depth. Yet, in eighteen years, none of them had ever reported a lucid dream. This stunned me. If not exactly common, isn’t lucid dreaming normal? The success of Christopher Nolan’s film Inception (2010) suggests that the phenomenon is known to popular culture.

According to US author John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction (1983), ‘fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind’. When the writer presents a scene, ‘he encourages the reader to “dream” the event with enormous clarity, by presenting as many concrete details as possible’. Traditionally, the reader hasn’t been able to change a scene’s destination. But the writer ‘writes by feel, intuitively, imagining the scene vividly and copying down the most significant details, keeping the fictional dream alive…’ The writer, like the lucid dreamer, is steering the course of the story. While the story originates from her unconscious, the writer makes choices at every point. One option might be to wake the reader up, even if, in Gardner’s opinion, ‘such writers are not writing fiction at all, but something else, metafiction’, the literary term for ‘a story that calls attention to its methods and shows the reader what is happening to him as he reads’.

What prompts me to read a particular novel, to dream someone else’s dream? If I wonder, it’s because the process can span not just days, weeks or months but years. The accessible Pride and Prejudice took me longer to read than Infinite Jest (which comprises 1,079 large pages of small and often dense text). Why? The latter, for all its unwieldiness, poses deeper questions, making it harder to set aside and forget.

How I determine what to ‘dream’ next has changed since my teens. Then, novels came from my parents’ shelves (Wuthering Heights), were set for English (The Hobbit) or discovered in the library. As a tween, I’d get hooked on a particular author (Willard Price’s Adventure series and Mary Elwyn Patchett’s Ajax series were both outdoorsy and suspenseful). After leaving school, I borrowed books from lovers, partners and fellow art students (The Bell Jar, The Alexandria Quartet, Nausea). Set in remote places and times, such classics enabled the dreamlike state that, as an incurable artist, I inhabited.

Typically, these days, I first decide to explore a particular author – only natural since I’ve become one. In my teens, books functioned as magical doorways to worlds far removed from the boredom I assumed their production induced; I much preferred painting to writing. And a weekly evening class at sixteen put me off typing. The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog? A lazy thinker, I didn’t distinguish ends from monotonous means. Reading being akin to dreaming, I moved unconsciously through each story, compliantly oblivious to its source. Now, the author’s intentions count because I’m interrogating my own. Synchronicity might spark my interest (repeatedly seeing an author mentioned despite no new release). Research, though, made me curious about Kazuo Ishiguro, an obvious introduction to whom might be his Booker Prize winner, Remains of the Day (1989). But I’m wary of novels that lend themselves to, if not beg for, film adaptations, and intrigued by qualities that resist translation to other media: What is it that only the novel can say? So I chose his more obscure and controversial The Unconsoled (1995).

Unreliably narrated by a famous concert pianist – an archetypal autistic genius – who seems to have partial amnesia, the story unfolds in an unspecified European town prior to a performance, the details of which elude the narrator as he gets endlessly waylaid by locals who seem, at least at first, to know him better than he knows them (or himself). As interesting as, if not more so than, the actual novel, which took 100+ pages read over several months to finally hook me, are Ishiguro’s thoughts from The Paris Review:

[…] the language of dreams is a universal language. Everyone identifies with it, whichever culture they come from. […] What is the grammar of dreams? Just now, the two of us are having this conversation in this room with nobody else in the house. A third person is introduced into this scene. In a conventional work, there would be a knock on the door and somebody would come in, and we would say hello. The dreaming mind is very impatient with this kind of thing. Typically what happens is we’ll be sitting here alone in this room, and suddenly we’ll become aware that a third person has been here all the time at my elbow.

True. And yet the reading mind gets impatient, too. I felt disbelief when the narrator, waiting in a parked car on the street outside a large apartment, recounts what’s transpiring inside, defying the laws of physics (p. 56). This was my first inkling of the grammar of dreams, a jarring departure from what critic James Wood calls (in Paul Auster’s fiction) ‘fake realism’.

One possible flaw in the story’s construction, given its guiding metaphor, is that dreams, for all their intensity and at times seeming interminableness, can elapse in a matter of seconds. In dreams of the kind I retain on waking, scenes change swiftly and often. Themes from previous dreams or nightmares, and life, recur yet don’t remain stable. If the features of dreaming consciousness persist during wakefulness, beyond the few hours – or days at most – one might spend in an altered state induced by, say, drugs, specific techniques or sleep deprivation, then one runs the risk of being diagnosed as mentally ill. In The Unconsoled, Ishiguro persists for 500+ pages with generic settings, homogenous dialogue and repetitive plot devices. The sameness of characters’ voices grated, as do films starring only gorgeous actors; it reminds me of sculptures where just bronze or marble must stand for all textures (skin, hair, wood etc.). Ishiguro’s explanation sounds curiously schematic: ‘The novel was […] meant to follow dream logic. In a dream, one character often will be portrayed by different people. I used that technique…’

This brings to mind Jungian-style dream interpretation: all characters in a dream symbolising aspects of the dreamer. I found The Unconsoled frustrating yet strangely compelling and unique. If not for his prior success, though, might Ishiguro have had to submit to more editing? And besides, who has time, these days, to read such lengthy experiments? Re the effect of the internet and digital distribution on fiction, author China Miéville has said that just as music fans remix albums, so readers will recut the novel: ‘Anyone who wants to shove their hands into a book and grub about in its innards, add to and subtract from it, and pass it on will … be able to do so without much difficulty.’ Forget about where we go during sleep; humans want control of their waking dreams.

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