I’ve been working my way through the NYRblog’s series on dreams this week. I have troubling, convoluted dreams, replete with violent international conflicts and complex relationships with nonexistent people. On a recent vacation, I awoke shouting from a nightmare, a not-infrequent occurrence. This time, though, I had to explain to my hotel roommates the reason for my cries.
Don’t worry; I won’t bore you with the details, except to say that, like the woman in Charles Simic’s essay, I have dreams that span days (“like afternoon soaps,” he writes brilliantly). This bothers me. If my dreams contain recurring characters and established settings, if they retain continuity from month to month and span days within themselves, well—I can’t help wondering, perhaps childishly, if my dream life goes on while I’m still awake.
The unexplored corners of the mind fascinate me, so it’s no surprise that I’m mostly pro-dreams in literature. But there seems to be a schism in the literary world, as evidenced by (what I’ve read so far of) the NYRblog’s series: In one corner, we have Michael Chabon and his frank contribution, “Why I Hate Dreams”; representing the dream team, we have Francine Prose and Nicholson Baker.
Obviously, there’s no right answer. Sometimes a dream telegraphs an ineffable insight into a character’s mind or delivers the perfect inexplicable sense of dread. And sometimes you can see the clumsy weight of the writer’s hand all over it, smudging details just because, or tossing in objects pregnant with symbolism. For years after opening one of those dream interpretation bibles in a Borders (R.I.P.), I found myself plagued by nightmares of losing my teeth, because the book said that motif indicates money problems, and I always have money problems.
But when I think of my favorite dreams in literature, I can’t even really think of any dreams. (One exception is the baffling dream sequence in Nathanael West’s underappreciated Miss Lonelyhearts.) Instead, I think of Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners.” If that story contains a dream sequence, I can’t recall it. But the oneiric sense of Jeremy and his friends chasing The Library through the snowy climes of cable TV reminds me more than anything else of my relationship with dreams, of my daily wakeful struggle to grasp some magical ephemera before I’m plunged back within it.
Link is a master of her genre. Years after reading Magic for Beginners, I actually did wonder whether the title story existed or whether I had dreamed it. (Of course I didn’t dream it, because I am not a master of Link’s genre.) Perhaps it’s the distorted sense of familiarity permeating her work that tricks me into believing a plot had shuffled out of some shadowy dream space in my head. It’s like how you misremember a childhood incident, imbuing it with some impossible power: your grandmother’s musty handbag that seemed to contain worlds, those creepy lawn ornaments you swore moved on their own, that beautiful story you’re not sure you really read.
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Below: pretty much the best ever depiction of a dream.