Saturday, February 24, 2007

Dream Sequences

Probably number one on the list of things writing teachers outlaw in workshops is the dream sequence, which, like an eight-minute guitar solo, is supposed to be much more fun to create than it is to read. About that, I'm not so sure. Certainly, I love to write them, but I love to read them, too. The problem with them is that, when they're good, they're fascinating, but when they're not so good, they're insufferable. A good dream fills a story with mystery and excitement; a bad one cheapens it terribly.

I'm back on Crime And Punishment, as my book group is meeting tomorrow for our second, and final, session on it; and I must admit that I'm shocked at how many dreams it contains. I'd entirely forgotten this. At the midpoint of the book is a terrifying sequence in which Raskolnikov dreams he is again murdering the old pawnbroker, and she laughs uncontrollably as he strikes her with the axe. And right after this, Svidrigailov arrives--a deeply creepy widower who may or may not have poisoned his wife and is obsessed with Raskolnikov's sister--and reveals that he sees his dead wife all the time, and actual reality begins to take on the quality of a dream.

Later, Raskolnikov sets out for Svidrigailov's apartment, but instead heads down a random street, for no clear reason--and there is Svidrigailov, in the window of a tavern Raskolnikov has never seen before. Raskolnikov calls it a miracle--and Svidrigailov corrects him:

     "...And as for the miracle...I myself suggested this tavern to you...I gave you all the directions myself, described the place where it stands, and told you the hours when I could be found here. Remember?"
     "I forgot," Raskolnikov answered in surprise.

Svidrigailov goes on to reveal that he has seen Raskolnikov leave his own apartment many times, and watched him go out into the street talking to himself and waving his hands in the air--something we, limited to Raskolnikov's point of view, have never seen before.

At this point it occurrd to me that the whole book functioned as a dream--that its logic was not strictly realistic, but adhered instead to the rules of intuition, and to its own moral complexity above all. There is another reality hidden behind the ostensible one--the reader feels the floor falling away beneath his feet. It also occurred to me that I was totally going to rip that scene right the hell off for my novel-in-progress, which functions in a similar manner, or tries to anyway.

I love books that seem entirely like dreams--one of my favorite novels of all time is Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, the kind of story in which the protagonist enters a room, then emerges five minutes later to find he's in an entirely different building...or suddenly remembers that an old man, a stranger, whom he has been dealing with for the past 400 pages is actually his father. I'd like to say I've been trying for years to imitate this book, but I haven't--I'm afraid to. It's too strange and wonderful.


Anonymous said...

I have to read The Unconsoled for a class and I think you may have just killed the ending for me.

jrlennon said...

Nah, that ain't the half of it...there's too much in there for me to ruin it for you.

Sorry, though...