shaken & stirred

welcome to my martini glass


the real dreams of a sleeping girl

The cover image for Sarah Shun-lien Bynum's debut novel Madeleine is Sleeping couldn't have been more perfectly chosen, and I don't say that just because it's why I picked up the book. It's one of Lewis Carroll's photographs from the Princeton archive, but not one of the Alices, nothing so obvious. The picture is "St. George and the Dragon," of Xie Kitchin and her three brothers.

Symmetry between a book and its cover rarely happens as it does with this one. In fact, I began to doubt almost immediately whether the book could live up to the promises of the cover and then the flap copy -- gypsy circuses, pornographers, fat women sprouting wings and all of it (or most of it) being dreamed by the sleeping Madeleine. I was promised the ethereal, the comic AND the poignant. Scariest of all, perhaps, was the use of the word "sexuality" in tandem with the phrase "discovery of." Typically, this sort of lead-in indicates a type of book which I find embarrassing for the person who wrote it.

It had solid blurbage -- not a measure of quality, but occasionally decisive -- the rapturous one by Z.Z. Packer* selling the hardest.

Best of all, really, really, best of all -- when you are crushed with life and moving and all of that -- it had deliciously short, tiny pearl chapters. A page, a page and a half. The type was not small. This was to be my salvation, this book of tiny chapters and gypsy circuses that I could mete out over the chaos.

I finished it in less than 24 hours.

The plot is deceptively simple: Madeleine is sleeping, we swim in her dreams and plod through her reality never quite sure that the line dividing the two isn't blurring and reforming at the same time. Honestly, there aren't many writers who can sell me an erotic -- and sweet -- fascination with le Petomane, a major subplot.

But Madeleine is Sleeping is an unusual, beautiful book. The lyricism and structural experimentation actually manages to tell a coherent, while still perfectly surreal, story. And, as Packer's blurb claims, it's like a mystery. A beautiful page-turner; which is, if I'm honest, what I'm almost always looking for in a book. This one reminds me of the best of Jeannette Winterson and of some of my favorite works by Angela Carter. Of Calvino and, the tiniest bit, of Steven Erickson. Of Anne Duffy's poetry. Of nothing else in particular.

(Note to Interstitial Arts people, this one's for you.)

*Packer's blurb: "Sarah Shun-lien Bynum's incredible debut novel is by turns magical, uncanny, fabulistic, and luminous. Most of all it is a haunting, genre-breaking novel with all the narrative energy of a mystery yet all the careful lyricism of a prose poem. Ultimately Madeleine Is Sleeping is a novel-length feast which is meant to be both celebrated and savored."


  • At 1:12 PM , Blogger chance said...

    wow - I love this cover. I have to read this book.

  • At 7:21 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Yeah, this is one of those covers that's so good you have to buy it.

    --Simon Owens

  • At 10:05 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    look forward to her book of short stories coming out this year--for a preview you can check out best american shorts--no where near as fantastical, but still strong, and a good demonstration of her versatility as a writer.


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