You see stars

Michael Wood

  • The House of Sleep by Jonathan Coe
    Viking, 384 pp, £16.99, May 1997, ISBN 0 670 86458 7

In the early Eighties, British novelists worried a lot about history. Where had it gone, why had it left so few traces, why did it still hurt? How could it simultaneously seem so irrelevant and so inescapable? ‘The past is a receding shoreline,’ the narrator says in Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), but he was busy replaying a story a hundred years old. In Graham Swift’s Waterland (1983), history is being ‘cut back’ as a school subject at the same time as it invades all the lives in the book. But behind these worries was still another one, not yet focused but beginning to loom pretty large. Something was taking the place of history, some hefty compound of nostalgia, propaganda, heritage, sheer imagination, which made it look as if we had always been, until recently, just what we wished we had been – or what some of us wished we had been. History was becoming an Edwardian calendar, the long afternoon of empire, when children obeyed their parents, everyone could spell, there were no drugs, and socialism was something intellectuals played at in the evenings. Free enterprise was sufficient, and entirely amiable – and when it wasn’t amiable, it was still all right, because it knew what was good for us, it didn’t tolerate slackers. Whatever was wrong with the present could be seen as a betrayal of these golden days, a failure to hang onto our glory.

Meanwhile, though, history hadn’t stopped. It was being made and written; and in Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up! (1994), it found the novel it was hiding from. This book is a brilliantly sustained spoof of many things: old film comedies, old detective stories, old chatty novels, stage farces – not everyone would connect Jean Cocteau with Sid James and Kenneth Connor. But it is above all a novel of the Thatcher years, satirically seen as the reign of a particular mentality, easily identified, but not so easily defined. Coe portrays it through six grotesques, members of a single family, which itself is a kind of metaphor for the way certain sections of old England have always known how to modernise themselves when the pickings looked good. They are a journalist, a politician, a gallery-owner, a farmer, a banker and an arms-dealer: between them they manage to profit from, if not actually orchestrate, the decline of the BBC, the dismantling of the National Health Service, the conversion of art into mere trend, massive cruelty to animals, insider dealing, and the sale of arms to Iraq. These characters have no redeeming features, and it’s a pleasure to read about them. ‘He would take full advantage of his freedom from party loyalties,’ we read of the politician, ‘by slavishly toeing the line of whichever cynical new shift in policy the present administration happened to be trying out at the time.’ ‘I’ve ... decided to take a strong line with the word “hospital”,’ the politician confides to his diary. ‘This word is no longer permitted at discussions: from now on, we call them “provider units”.’ ‘You don’t think,’ the journalist says of her tabloid column, ‘I’d share my beliefs – anything that was actually mine – with all those people, do you?’ There are starker, more shocking moments too. The politician asks his cousin the arms-dealer if there is anything to all these ugly rumours about torture in Iraq. The cousin reviews in his head, for a long, gruesome paragraph, everything that is known about the beating and burning and mutilation that goes on in Baghdad prisons, and then says of the rumours: ‘Wildly exaggerated, if you ask me.’ This same cousin provides Coe with one of his most lethal and most characteristic jokes. The man’s wife of a few hours dies in a car explosion, blown up by one of Saddam’s agents because of a little misunderstanding about who was trading military secrets with whom. ‘Mark was devastated by the loss. The car was a 1962 Morgan Plus 8 Drop Head Coupé in midnight blue, one of about three or four left in the world.’

The point about this composite portrait is not that the people are greedy and nasty: the Thatcher years didn’t have a monopoly on that, and to moralise Coe’s jokes too directly is to miss the fact that they are jokes. The truly interesting feature of the displayed mentality is that it is not even cynical, or it goes beyond cynicism. It just doesn’t understand the notion of scruple, can’t contemplate the possibility of anything other than self-interest governing the world. Mrs Thatcher didn’t cause this mentality, didn’t herself entirely espouse it, although she did benefit by it, and she did give it a lot of air. I think of the child in Auden’s ‘The Shield of Achilles’ who has never heard of any world where promises are kept. In the Eighties and early Nineties it often felt as if we were living in a world where the very idea of doing something for nothing had become a fantasy, or worse: just a pious cover-up for the stealthier forms of advancement. I remember very precisely the faint tremor I felt when I first heard the word ‘opportunist’ used without any pejorative colouring. What Coe’s wonderful hyperboles suggest is not that everyone fell for this mentality, but that everyone was touched by it, and no one knew how to name a plausible alternative. Even Coe’s hero, when a wrecked health service allows a loved friend to die, can only describe the cause of death as ‘the same thing that gets everybody in the end: a combination of circumstances’. Cancer, in this case, plus the undiluted philosophy of the market.

This world and this mentality are not gone from Coe’s new novel, The House of Sleep. They are present particularly in the activities of the mad psychologist who specialises in sleep disorders – his secret belief is that sleep is a disease, both demeaning in itself and a form of inefficiency – and the film critic whose irony is so lazy he doesn’t even know what it is he’s not saying. The doctor responds with predictable enthusiasm to all the Thatcherite and post-Thatcherite cues (‘Nowadays students never tire of bleating about how poverty-stricken they are’; ‘BSE, you mean? A lot of hysterical rubbish whipped up by members of the most worthless and unscrupulous profession of all: journalists’), and happily takes part in a seminar, complete with flip-charts and baby talk, on the ‘inevitable transition to a management culture’, while his colleagues are fuming at the indignity of the thing, and the colossal waste of time it represents. One of these doctors needed to be at the Home Office instead to discuss (prevent) the release of a dangerously disturbed patient. The patient is released and attacks ... the journalist as it happens, plunging him into what looks like a permanent coma. The doctor meanwhile goes completely berserk in his quest for eternal wakefulness, and is last heard murmuring ‘None shall sleep’ as he listens to Pavarotti’s ‘Nessun dorma’ set to perpetual repeat on his CD player.

But this novel mainly follows out a different strand of What a Carve Up!, taking it much further into speculative realms. The earlier novel had an epigraph from Cocteau’s Orphée, translated for us late in the book as ‘If you sleep, if you dream, you must accept your dreams. It’s the role of the dreamer.’ In The House of Sleep the ability to dream, and the loss of dreams, are the central subject. If dreams are a mirror, what do we see when we look into them? What does it mean to accept our dreams? What happens when dreams not only compete with waking reality, but virtually abolish it, as is the case with the heroine of this novel, Sarah Tudor, a narcoleptic? She thinks she is imagining things, but she is not: ‘Sarah came to learn that she was not the victim of delusions at all, but that every so often she was liable to have a dream so real that she could not distinguish it from the events of her waking life; so real, furthermore, that it was capable of wiping these events from memory, so that they had to be remembered through the dream, recovered from beneath the dream, peered at through its cloudy, erasing surface like the original words of a palimpsest.’

Sarah escapes from a blundering affair with the man who is to become the mad doctor, and finds comfort and a new sexual identity in the arms of Veronica, a fellow student. Robert meanwhile, another student, falls in love with Sarah, and would do anything for her, and eventually does. The plotting of this novel is so intricate, so dependent on surprise and on characters showing up in altered circumstances, that I can’t tell much of the story without spoiling the fun. It will be enough to say that the narrative works through a double time-frame, 1983-4 and 1996, and that it is conceptually organised around the place and the activity named in the title. Ashdown, a large house on the edge of a coastal cliff, is a university student residence in the first time-frame; a clinic for sufferers from sleep disorders in the second time-frame. If Sarah’s dreams become reality, and if she also keeps falling asleep in the daytime, Terry the journalist, who used to sleep 14 hours a night, has now learned how to do without sleep altogether, and claims not to have slept properly for 12 years. Prior to that he had wonderful dreams he couldn’t remember; now, perforce, he has no dreams at all. The right relation to sleep becomes something like the unavailable norm, the psychological equivalent of a world where promises are kept. No one exactly hankers for this condition in the novel, but its absence makes everything strange, as if we had stepped into one of Cocteau’s mirrors.

Or it ought to make everything strange, almost does. The House of Sleep doesn’t have half the high jinks of What a Carve Up!, and almost none of its rigorously stylised satire. The characters in the novel are generally rather pallid, and not through lack or excess of sleep; it’s as if Coe has (understandably) got tired of the nastiness of his earlier characters, and decided he needed to hang out with some nice people for a while. The trouble is that we miss the nasty ones. The mode of the writing is mundane realism, applied to notionally deviant conditions, sexual and somatic. This sounds like a good idea, but it produces writing like this: ‘Later that week he was due to start at a medical school in London. She was staying on at university for another year, to train as a primary school teacher’; ‘He went downstairs to join her, gaining access to the terrace through the French windows in the television room, where the rusty hinges gave out a grating squeal.’ Or like this: ‘Just as she was leaving, they looked directly into each other’s eyes for the first time; and something happened then, some connection was made, just for a moment’; ‘And Robert would later remember ... how an immediate premonition had visited him: the awareness, at once, that he was in freefall, plummeting towards a limitless chasm.’ Coe ordinarily has such an eye for cliché that I think I must be missing something here, a swerve into pastiche which would confer life on these phrases.

Perhaps the purpose is to highlight the several dazzling set-pieces in the book: the classroom, for instance, where the student teacher confronts the boy who, asked to write a poem about stars, has responded with an agile bit of rap, ending:

Ain’t no one allowed to go fuckin with my whore
You see stars, motherfucker, see stars
You see stars, motherfucker, see stars

Or the Lacanian psychoanalytic paper where language is the hero (‘language ... is a distant flute on a misty night, teasing us with half-forgotten melodies; it is the light on the inside of the fridge, which never goes off when we are looking; it is a fork in the road; it is a knife in the water’), where a teacher who says she wants to protect her pupils must (of course) be talking about her eyes, and where even the seemingly unambiguous phrase ‘I kneed him in the balls’ can be reclaimed for interpretation as a version of ‘I need him in the (eye-)balls.’ There is also a great knockabout scene where the (English) cineast who cares only for austerity meets the (American) moviegoer who has never heard of any film made before The Godfather.

‘Don’t you think that Welles is rather overrated?’

‘Definitely. I went there with Dad last month, and Bath’s a lot nicer.’

‘I mean, think about that for a minute. Can you even imagine the history of the cinema without Wenders?’

‘No, I can’t,’ said Kingsley, truthfully. ‘I mean, someone’s got to sell the Coke and the popcorn.’

The most elaborate of these numbers concerns an article edited by Terry for a film journal. The piece is a rambling speech by a nonentity from the British film business, to which Terry has added footnotes in the hope of providing a little historical spice. Once he decides he doesn’t have to footnote Teddington (‘A placid, respectable Thameside suburb of London, just South of Richmond’), he has a friend re-number the footnotes for him. She does, in the text; but fails to alter the footnotes themselves. This means that Denis Thatcher seems to be enjoying sex movies rather than golf; that a series of inspirational works recommended by Pope Paul VI are called Wet Knickers, Pussy Talk and Cream on My Face; that Jeffrey Archer is confused with Kingsley Amis, and Cliff Richard with Vera Lynn (‘Durable singer of uplifting ballads who has, for as long as most of us can remember, been regarded as one of the undisputed queens of British popular music’). But for me the funniest and richest of these bits of comic and cultural bravura lies in Coe’s invention of the harsh and neglected Italian film director, Salvatore Ortese, 1913-75, a man who quickly became impatient with the sentimentality of neo-realism, and whose Paese senza Pietà (1951) was followed by what is here called his ‘more upbeat’ Morte da Fame (1955). His one colour film, E la Vita (1964), was thought to be rather pessimistic, because in its original version the ‘loving mother who turns prostitute in order to pay for her schizophrenic son’s medical treatment ... loses both her legs in a freak vacuum-cleaning accident.’ Ortese’s last film, Sergente Cesso (1972), which the director himself called ‘a hymn to the degradation of the human spirit’, has never been publicly shown, and indeed is now lost.

These jokes, apart from being an astute commentary on the importance of small things, and on what we might call the snobbery of pessimism, tell us something about the structure of Coe’s fictional world. It’s not just that sleeping and waking flow into each other here, and that buffoons replace history with simulacra of their own vanity. Or that Coe’s best jokes are always about loneliness, the failure of one mind or set of minds to begin to imagine what other minds are thinking. ‘Is this one of your tapes?’ a musician asks another musician in The Dwarves of Death (1990), indicating a tremendous tuneless racket coming from the stereo. ‘What, this music? No. It’s too fucking tuneful for us, this is. We used to sound like this when we were trying to be commercial ... This sounds like the fucking Pet Shop Boys compared to what we sound like.’ This is a world where everyone lives and dies of a cruel and/or comic combination of circumstances – or more precisely, it is the mocking imitation of such a world. It reminds us that misunderstanding can become a country, and that in such places our laughter is our only hope. ‘No hopes for them as laughs,’ Byron remembered a preacher saying, when he and his half-sister had been giggling in church. No hopes for them as don’t.