Book Review: THE SLEEP GARDEN by Jim Krusoe

Sunday, January 31, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Sleep Garden — Jim Krusoe (Tin House, 2016)

It’s a rainy, blustery afternoon in Los Angeles County, but if you feel like stirring out of the house, ease on over to Diesel Books in Santa Monica, where Jim Krusoe will be reading from The Sleep Garden, his best novel yet, at 3 p.m. His first several published volumes of writing were poetry (History of the World; Small Pianos; Jungle Girl), and The Sleep Garden circles back to the scoured diction of that early work and brings his vision of life and afterlife to fruition. Given that an early meditation on the spondee of “rectum” adumbrates the irony of the characters’ exit, stage left, through the kitchen to their ultimate dissolution, it is a surprisingly and often humorous journey.

Krusoe’s control of tone in this existential fable is pitch-perfect. It begins with a mild echo of Beatrix Potter and Emily Dickinson all rolled into a delicate omelet of forestalled tragicomedy. The characters in The Sleep Garden have no doubt arrived at their current residence, The Burrow, with the same trepidation experienced by Dickinson’s anonymous narrator in “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” but the horses’ heads have been forgotten as they settled in, and life in this cloistered suburban complex has proved to be much the same as it was above ground. In fact, the characters seem to have picked up exactly where they might have left off in their previous condition, which is to say Viktor is just as obsessed with making money for the sake of playing that game, and Heather is still called upon and put upon by males who need a vocal prosthesis to accompany their masturbatory fantasies.

On one level, Krusoe has written an updated version of Sartre’s Huis Clos, except that the characters seems to be much more accommodating of each other. Well, most of them are accommodating. In a metatext that serves as the underside to the comic dalliances of the main cast, there is a set of “technicians” who keep the stage show afloat. They are the stage crew who are waiting for their own Godot to show up, and serve as a kind of slow-witted Brechtian chorus. No doubt there are operations manuals that the author had access to, but we as readers were spared that labor. That irony can work on the level of authorial excision is not the least tangy part of Krusoe’s jesting in the face of “Zero,” the sum of the game played mostly (if not entirely) in the minds of the novel’s characters.

It helps, of course, to have done enough reading so that one catches the allusions. The Captain’s “memory breaks like low waves against a distant shore in search of an answer. Break break break … nothing.” Given the eventual revelation of the funerary nature of the Burrow, it helps the immediate accumulation of hints for one to hear the opening syllables in that passage of Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar.” One doesn’t have to know this to remain entranced with the narrative, but the subtle coloring is otherwise lost.

Other references will be caught by most people without too much of an effort. Raymond, for instance, has a photograph from a sports magazine tacked up on his wall. The model in the picture is a woman in a swimsuit, and it’s not hard to attribute this clipped image to Sports Illustrated and its famous annual display of swimming attire. However, what no reader can possibly anticipate is the model’s metamorphosis into a post-modern Diogenes. As with so many other instances throughout The Sleep Garden, the aftertaste of the laugh is just as delicious as the first bite.

The audience for this novel will primarily be those who have not watched much television during the past forty years, but I mention this bifurcation because a fictional short-lived television show has a major role in the novel’s droll commentary on contemporary life, and the relationship of the characters in the novel to the characters in “Mellow Valley” constitutes one of the major mordant temblors of The Sleep Garden. Let not your ignorance of popular culture trivia dismay you, and do not fret if a show such as “Friends” does not evoke any specific image more than “Welcome Back, Kotter.” The predominance of the culture industry gets its comeuppance in this novel, but not in a vindictive manner. In this case, the spoiled child of popular culture spanks itself. It could be said, in fact, Horkheimer and Adorno might enjoy The Sleep Garden, though they might grouse afterwards that it let the culture industry off too easily.

Those two aside, most other readers will look forward to reading this novel a second and a third time. Ballerina Mouse is one of the most heartbreaking aging ingénues to ever undertake an existential rehearsal. Even very minor characters, such as the Vietnam veteran, Sgt. Moody, leave the reader with a haunting layer of the untold as being more brutal than anything that could be told.

The Sleep Garden awaits us all, Krusoe hints, no matter what endeavors we commit ourselves to. Some commitments are easier than others, however. Rather than worrying about your own personal failures in whatever you might have tried to do in your life, I would recommend the best therapy session that you will ever attend. By the end of reading this novel, you will be able to accept much that seemed too difficult to bear just a short time ago.

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