Books Magazine

In Praise of ‘Difficult’ Novels

By Litlove @Litloveblog

What makes a novel difficult? Well, just about anything that doesn’t conform to the conventional unfolding of plot and character. And yet the whole point of convention is to produce a book that tricks us, that we can read as if it weren’t a book at all but an alternate reality into which we had slipped. ‘Easy’ books hide their very bookishness with artifice and illusion, and the reader willingly accepts being duped. You could think of a book, then, as being to life what a dream is to a waking state. We know we are dreaming, but the experience is so uncannily life-like and intriguing that we forget. So-called ‘difficult’ books are like lucid dreams, into which a different level of consciousness intrudes; we are made aware of the fact of dreaming, aware that this is not the same as reality, aware of the constructed and arbitrary nature of the whole experience. And why would we want to encounter this supposed ‘difficulty’? Because being aware of the hidden truth of creativity makes it even richer and more intriguing than before.

sleeping patterns
J.R. Crook’s beguiling novella, Sleeping Patterns, is one of the most original little experiments in fiction that I’ve come across in a while and the strangest hopscotch of a love story. It’s dedicated to the memory of the author, J. R. Crook, who is, never fear, alive and kicking. And then introduced by one of the principle characters, Annelie Strandli, known mostly in the narrative as Gretha. She has received the following narrative through the post, in chapters that have been shuffled like a deck of cards into the wrong order. This (dis)order is maintained, though the numbered chapters give the reader a clue as to whereabouts in the chronology of the story we are.

The location is a student hall of residence in South London, where the Finnish Gretha has come to study, leaving her boyfriend, Gunnar, behind her. She becomes curious about a shy, withdrawn student, Berry Walker, who is an insomniac and an aspiring writer. With the help of her friend, Jamie Crook, she manages to steal into his room occasionally to filch pages of a work in progress out of his desk drawer. The manuscript pages tell the parable of Boy One and his friend Boy Two, who are in early adolescence. Boy One is a dreamer who cannot help falling asleep in lessons, much to the rage of his teacher and despite his friend’s attempts to keep him awake. But Boy One believes in the power of dreams to tell a different kind of story, and one more significant than that contained in the real world. He’s encouraged and abetted in this by the cranky prophet who runs the sweetshop, and whose crazy philosophies entice him. Is this, then, the prequel to Berry Walker’s appearance in Gretha’s life, is it his fictionalised backstory? Does it explain his inability to sleep and the importance Gretha holds for him?

Gretha eagerly pores over the pages she discovers, avidly seeking for the meaning they contain, just as the readers of Sleeping Patterns are obliged to search out small details in the mixed-up chapters of the narrative in order to orient themselves in the events of the story. Mimicking the disrupted sleeping patterns of Berry Walker, the unfolding narrative is broken up and scattered. Both inside the story and from the reader’s perspective we begin to question what’s real and what’s fictional, and to find different sorts of patterns to help us. The story itself is not complicated, and the language is pure and simple, so this is not a book that confuses, despite its structure. But it does give the reader the strange experience of watching the mind scurry about putting the bits of the puzzle together again, trying them out in different orders, waiting to pounce on a useful clue. Everything is resolved with the arrival of the final chapter (placed last in the book, as well) and given a surprising and yet satisfying twist. At this point the elements of narrative slot into place like bullets in a chamber. But having the story in place only gives rise to a whole new layer of interpretation. Who loved and who was the beloved? Who was writing and who was reading?

Sleeping Patterns draws for inspiration from the theory of Roland Barthes who wrote an essay entitled ‘The Death of the Author’. In it, he argued that meaning was in the hands of the reader, and that searching for authorial intention, as critics had previously done, was futile. The ‘death’ of Jamie Crook that opens the novel is a neat salute to Barthes and a clever way of showing the reader how the theory works, rather than telling it. But you don’t need to know anything about literary theory to enjoy this novel; you just have to go with the flow, keep your wits about you, and be ready to take up your changing and evolving place in the dance of readers circling around the eviscerated fragments of J. R. Crook’s cunning story.

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