Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Colm Tóibín's "Sleep" was originally published in the March 23, 2015 issue of The New Yorker.
The story begins peacefully. The narrator, an unnamed Irisman, is lying in bed with his lover, a younger Jewish man.
I know what you will do when morning comes. I wake before you do and I lie still. Sometimes I doze, but usually I am alert, with my eyes open. I don’t move. I don’t want to disturb you. I can hear your soft, calm breathing and I like that. And then at a certain point you turn toward me without opening your eyes; your hand reaches over, and you touch my should or my back. And all of you comes close to me. It is as though you were still sleeping — there is no sound from you, just a need, almost urgent but unconscious, to be close to someone. This is how the day begins when you are with me.
The narrator seems so at ease. As the story moves forward, it appears he’s the stable one in the relationship, the one who has dealt with the demons of the past and who can support his lover, who is attending sessions with an analyst.
However, the peace, the ease, turns out to be a bit of a façade.
I feel happy, rested, ready for the day as I return from the shower and find you lying on your back with your glasses on, your hands behind your head.
“You know that you were groaning in the night? Almost crying. Saying things.” Your voice is accusing; there is a quaver in it.
“I don’t remember anything. That’s funny. Was it loud?”
This is not the first time the younger man has been frightened by the narrator’s hidden torment. He even admits he’s talked to his analyst about the narrator, and the analyst has recommended the narrator seek help.
“Sleep” proceeds at a pleasant, slow pace that matches the narrator’s attempts to avoid whatever it is that is causing such fear. He knows it’s there, he has never dealt with it, and he just waits for it to go away when it shows up:
The fear comes on Saturdays, and it comes, too, if I am staying somewhere, in a hotel room, for example, and there is shouting in the street in the night. Shouting under my window. I keep it to myself, the fear, and by doing this sometimes I keep it away, at arm’s length, elsewhere. But there are other times when it breaks through, something close to dread, as though what happened had not occurred yet but will occur, is about to do so, and there is nothing I can do to stop it. The fear can come from nowhere. I may be reading, as I often do on Saturdays while you practice or go to a concern with your friends. I am reading and then suddenly I look up, disturbed.
I won’t go into the fear here, either, but I do want to say that I found the story’s exploration fascinating and fulfilling. An author can set up quite a problem when they keep a secret from the reader: with the revelation be too trite? I found the story natural and deep, in all of its simplicity. The complexity comes from Tóibín’s exceptional exploration.
Part of that exploration is Tóibín’s use of “you,” another narrative technique that can quickly turn sour. Here, the “you” is not me, the reader; Tóibín is not using this as a method to get me involved. Here, the “you” is the Jewish lover, who is a good twenty years younger than the narrator. And, importantly, “you” is not around to hear any of this. Consequently, the use of “you” emphasizes the narrator’s sadness, his longing, his need to talk to this person, at least in his head, even though by the time the story is related “you” is frightened of the narrator.
Thus, the “you” becomes another technique for creating distance. It feels like he’s dealing with something, expressing something, but he’s not actually telling “you” anything because the young lover is not actually present when the story is being told.
Fascinating and brilliant, the story ends perfectly. There’s a lot here, so I look forward to your thoughts in the comments below.