Friday, December 31, 2004

Madeleine is Sleeping by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

I like the description of this novel more than the novel itself, but it's a worthy experiment. It's structured almost like a book of prose poems, very short, titled sections, clearly meant to be lyric. I like the idea of the mini chapters adding up to a novel, but the language never felt quite good enough to compensate for the lack of character development (these are Capital C Characters, not people). One of my students has been asking about how fiction can work if it's not character-driven, and my belief, at least, is that it then has to operate much more like a poem -- either language-driven or idea-driven, preferably some of both.

Much of the novel is set in dreams, and the big problem there is that dreams are allowed to be random and loaded with meaning, which to a writer is way too convenient. It lets you load up the symbols and strangeness without really earning them. The choice to use present tense also overdid the sense of forced lyricism--as did a number of the one line paragraphs (a tool I like, but only when it's a really worthy line). Actually this felt like a whole book of one line paragraphs.

There were moments I really liked in this book, and I applaud the ambition. The best image is the predominant one--Madeleine, in her bed, sleeping, as all kinds of odd business goes on around her. I also love the cover, but you know what they say about that...

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