By Jonathan Coe
, copyright 1999 Vintage (Randomhouse) publishers.
The House of Sleep is, as its title suggests, about sleep. It is also about dreams and loss, films and critics; it is about love and hate, sex and sexuality, families and friendships. In short, it is about life. Life, but of course, not as we know it. Like in a TV soap, a mundane setting forms a backdrop for fantastic and bizarre situations and unlikely coincidences. Anyone under 40, in school/recently left school, suffering from unrequited love, sleeping too much or too little, and/or consumed by film will love the story.
(Which would be oh, about 90% of people on E2).
The central vision of The House of Sleep is Ashdown, an imposing university residence which later becomes a sleep clinic. This house, 'essentially unfit for occupation', is occupied at various times by various students. These students, the main characters in the novel, are linked by a web of relationships, but what really binds them is the presence of the house.
The novel is cleverly arranged into sections labeled with the various stages of sleep: Awake, Stage One, Stage Two, Stage Three, Stage Four, and REM Sleep. Even-numbered chapters take place in 1996 and odd-numbered chapters occur in the years 1983-1984.
The beginning focuses on the early-80's student Sarah, who is narcoleptic. She sleeps badly at night, falls asleep during the day and, most importantly, has dreams so vivid they are indistinguishable from reality. We see the painful end of her relationship with Gregory, a cruel and insensitive medical student who specialises in psychiatry. Sarah then meets the shy, kind Robert, who inevitably falls in love with her. Sadly, Robert's hopes are thwarted when Sarah's attentions are drawn to the strangely attractive Veronica. Robert's love for Sarah endures, as does the love the novel engenders for the couple. Even when Sarah and Robert aren't present, we are thinking about them.
Some of these same students return to Ashdown years later as either patients or staff when the building is converted into the Dudden Clinic where individuals with all sorts of sleep disorders are treated. The characters stay true through the changes of early adulthood: neuroses become more fixed; problems become more pronounced. Coe lets them mature, yet they remain utterly recognizable.
Despite the believable depictions Coe weaves of his characters, in The House of Sleep reality often appears more surrealistic than dreams. Sleep is portrayed as a paradox. On the one hand, it is described as a disease, even a plague, that shortens life by a third. Sleepers are powerless as they lie unconscious and helpless. On the other hand, sleep is envisioned as "the great leveler" where "nobody would ever tell a lie." Those who cannot sleep, want to. Those who are perpetually falling asleep strive to stay awake. Sleep is seen by some as a weakness, but by others as a reward. For a few of these characters, falling asleep is just as easy (or difficult) as falling in love.
In The House of Sleep, everyone is somehow connected. The novel depicts not only how sleep changes us but also questions what is real and what is only a dream. It explores the psychology of sleep and issues of time, identity, and discontent. By the conclusion of the story, The House of Sleep deduces that we will never be able to please others if we cannot understand and satisfy ourselves.
Read it, I tell you, I beg you, I beseech you.