How Did You Sleep?

By Paul Glennon

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a giant insect.”

So begins Franz Kafka’s famous novella “The Metamorphosis,” written in 1912. The weirdness of the transformation, not to mention where it takes place, makes us wonder if maybe Gregor isn’t still asleep. His “uneasy dreams” seem to have carried over into his waking life.

Fast forward to the year 2000, and Ottawa writer Paul Glennon:

It freaked me out at first. It was bound to. I woke up and everything was chrome.

The stories in Glennon’s exciting debut collection How Did You Sleep? open a door into a dream world of fiction that is remarkably like Kafka’s. Both writers set their fiction in an alternate reality that is threatening and absurd, and both have an interest in metamorphosis. In Glennon we not only have the man whose world has turned into chrome, but a husband who discovers his wife is made out of wood and a chairman of the board who is changed into a bear.

But it is where Glennon differs from Kafka that he is the most interesting. What makes Glennon’s nightmares so threatening is their seductive appeal. With Kafka one always has the sense of an individual unfairly trapped in an absurd world. Glennon’s writing is more surreal, in that his dark, dream images are the expression of a subconscious in artistic revolt.

Dreams and the unconscious have long been associated with imagination and the artistic side of human nature. In the story “One Hand” Glennon turns this into an allegory. The narrator is a man of science without an artistic bone in his body who dwells on the example of Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo apparently took notes using his left hand and writing in reverse script, which the narrator understands as a method for tapping into the creative right side of the brain.

But when the man of science begins his own left-handed journal things start to get out of control. It seems that the creative side of the brain is also the self-destructive side. The left hand goes from making strangely coded threats to wrecking the narrator’s marriage and endangering his life.

Self-destructive revolt also plays a major role in “My Babylon Cells,” a story that locates Poe’s imp of the perverse in a type of pre-human bacteria. Mitochondria are imagined as terrorist cells, seeking to sabotage and destroy the bodies they are trapped within. But by being so subversive they are also more truly human: little souls raging against the human machine.

The scientist’s left hand and the Babylon cells are just two examples of inner revolt. In other stories the revolt is public and political, though still irrational, threatening and dangerous. The story “The Terror” is set in a state where a new regime has implemented a code of social behaviour that turns out to be fatal for some. In “Save the Barbers” a seemingly innocuous profession is targeted for extinction by rednecks.

Unconscious forces, even the dark ones, are not without their attractions. The complaint of the scientist’s wife about all the attention he gives to his hand is an obvious joke, but it makes a point. Many of the stories deal with relationships that have failed or are on the rocks precisely because of this introversion. The pleasures of art, illusion, and the imagination are what seduce the narrators into isolation, loneliness and suicide. Make the personal political and you can see the analogy to intolerance and terror.

The cover of How Did You Sleep? features a painting by the Surrealist painter René Magritte. Like his fellow Surrealist Dali, Magritte knew that his jokes and illusions wouldn’t work unless he took them perfectly seriously. Glennon’s prose has the same task, and it works in the same way. The writing is deadpan, sometimes even scholarly. When we finally get some earthy language in the final story it almost comes as a shock. The perfect illusion is ruffled by voices that are real.

Such a weird and original debut can only leave us wondering what dreams may come.

Review first published January 6, 2001.


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