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Dream sequences: not just for David Lynch

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According to Jonathan Lethem -- and I have to rely on him because I wouldn't know what they teach in writing school -- "the foremost writing-school rules" include proscriptions "against dream sequences," among other common (cliché) literary devices.

Frankly, I was surprised to read this.  Dreams, like falling in love, are a profound experience of the irrational common to all humans.  Banning dreams from literature is like forbidding female characters in novels from crying.  I understand the rationale: the idea (in both cases) is to prevent authors from getting lazy and taking easy routes to conveying information.  But shouldn't the lesson be to be more creative about dream sequences -- and female bawling scenes -- rather than decreeing a literary world absent of quotidian experiences of the irrational?

I was reminded of Lethem's comment after I read a terrific dream sequence in Jenna Blum's Those Who Save Us.  (In fairness to Lethem, he mentioned the proscription against dream scenes in the course of praising Roberto Bolaño for violating it.)  In the dream, Trudy, the protagonist, envisions a Santa Claus in the kitchen, making a mess.  When she confronts him, he unbuttons his shirt, showing it to be stuffed with tempting food dishes.  Then he says,

    Come, sit down, he says, and tell me: Have you been a good girl this year?
    No, says Trudy.  No, no, no --
    He cocks his head.  Yes? he says, as if he hasn't heard her.  Good.  Then I will show you a little something.
    He rises from the chair and starts to undo the buttons of these trousers as well.
    Stop it, Trudy shouts.  I don't want to see!
    He parts the cloth and holds it open, standing at attention.  He wears nothing underneath, and his stomach and pubic hair are smeared with dark blood.
    You see, I am not Santa, he says.  I am Saint Nikolaus, and I come whenever I please.

(p. 188.)  That last line, "I am Saint Nikolaus, and I come whenever I please," stayed with me for days, blindsiding me in the shower or shadowing me as I took a walk.  Blum's dream sequence tapped my visceral vein, just as a vivid and disturbing dream would in life.

Provoking a gut response with written stimulus is hard -- maybe the hardest feat in literature.  (The author who does this best, in my opinion, is D.M. Thomas in The White Hotel.  But for sheer frequency, the crown no doubt goes to Stephen King.)  Learning how to transcend the page and worm into the reader's gut is a skill that, so far as I can glean, can't be taught.  One stumbles onto by following one's instinct.  Blum reached it through a dream scene. 

If that diminishes her accomplishment in writing school, I'd suggest skipping the writing school.

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Those Who Save Us category.

This Way to Paradise is the previous category.

To the End of the Land is the next category.



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