Madeleine Is Sleeping
by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum (2004)
Harcourt (2005)
276 pp

Though I wanted to, I didn’t particularly like Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s “The Erlking,” published in The New Yorker as part of its “20 Under 40” fun last summer. I read it a few times, finding the language intriguing, hoping the concept would pay off, but I never felt it worked. Still, I was interested in looking at her so-far small back catalog. Her most recent novel, Ms. Hempel Chronicles, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner in 2009, but I went back to her debut, a finalist for the National Book Award, the incredibly bizarre, dreamy, erotic, fairy-tale-esque Madeleine Is Sleeping. I was hoping that this novel would include some of the darkness and wonder that I felt was missing in her short reworking of “The Erlking.”

The cover — a picture by Lewis Carroll, whose work is certainly an influence here — is one of those pictures of children playing that nevertheless manages to be haunting. Why is death seemingly just out of the frame in these types of pictures? These children are not in any visible peril, but even their faces seem to show an awareness of mortality. Peril is already present.

Now, this is not exactly a book about death. Rather, Madeleine is simply sleeping, perhaps eternally. For whatever reason, her sleep has been a boon to her family, particularly to Mother.

When Madeleine sleeps, Mother says, the cows give double their milk. Pansies sprout up between the floorboards. Your father loves me, but I remain slender and childless. I can hear the tumult of pears and apples falling from the trees like rain.

Smooth your sister’s coverlet. Arrange her hair on the pillowcase. Be silent as saints. We do not wish to wake her.

But this is just an illusion of peace. In fact, Madeleine’s life is already in turmoil. In short episodes, usually no more than a couple of paragraphs and often just a few sentences (or even one), we enter into Madeleine’s dreams, which are filled with a host of strange characters. We feel drawn to these characters in sympathy or because they are kind and yet we are repulsed by their grotesquery. There’s an extremely obese woman who sprouts wings and flies around naked. A young woman is a viol maker’s object of obsession, and she’s eventually strung up as a viol herself. There’s the flatulent, symphonic man and his love affair. Shun-lien Bynum’s physical and often sensual language is magnificent as she writes these characters who attract and repulse.

The dreams get stranger. Incredibly curious, Madeleine treats the village idiot to a handjob, objectively examining the action and the result. This is followed by banishment from the pastoral village where she lives. As if remembering a story told to her when awake, suddenly Madeleine’s dreamworld transitions: “In an old house in Paris that is covered with vines live twelve little girls in two straight lines.” Her surroundings are a school run by nuns, and she is the storybook character Madeleine. This is her exile, for a time.

Meanwhile, in the waking world, a prince shows up to wake Madeleine with a kiss. And things really start to fall apart for Mother when the obese flying woman alights on top of the house in which Madeleine is sleeping; Mother rushes out to tell her to get off and get out. This is just the beginning of the messy line between Madeleine’s dreams and reality, whatever that is — and we have good cause to question that at the end.

Indeed, it is a strange book about adolescence, it’s apparent peace and its ugly other dimension. Where I found “The Erlking” lacking, I found Madeleine Is Sleeping full of meaning, wonderfully developed and executed, as Madeleine goes through her adolescent transitions and all the forces, for good or evil, that exert an influence. Even Mother begins to worry about how she’s shaping her children’s lives. Here is a full episode (all have a title):

House of the Sleeping Beauties

To marry, to rear her children, these things were on the surface good, Mother thinks. But to have had the long years in her power, to have controlled their lives, to have warped their natures even, these might be evil things.

Perhaps, beguiled by custom and order, one’s sense of evil goes numb.

This is a very strange book. I don’t believe that even after reading my thoughts above one could enter into its pages with a correct preconception of its contents. I consider that a good thing.

The book will frustrate some, even those who profess to enjoy the weird. In fact, when I first finished it, as much as I was enjoying it piece by piece, I just didn’t know what to make of it. It’s still very much a mystery, but in the time I’ve taken to reconsider it and put these thoughts together, it’s grown in my estimation.

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