Magazine article The Spectator

The Sleeve Stays Unravelled

Magazine article The Spectator

The Sleeve Stays Unravelled

Article excerpt

THE HOUSE OF SLEEP by Jonathan Coe viking L16.99, pp. 384

Jonathan Coe made a spectacular name for himself with his last novel, the marvellous What a Carve-Up!, which was awarded a prize by the French, presumably for confirming their worst suspicions about the English. Many forms of greed and treachery were disclosed in a dazzling panorama of not quite farcical scams that ranged from high finance to low dealings on the farm. Needless to say, its successor has been awaited with more than usual interest. And it is the polar opposite of what the unsuspecting reader might have anticipated. Extremely short on enraged chuckles or even sympathetic groans, it almost sleepwalks through its chosen subject, which is, appropriately enough, sleep disorder, and its effects on its sufferers, who remain unawakened as to its possibilities.

Those of us who spend our nights listening to the World Service will be slightly exasperated by this waste of precious material, as is Dr Dudden, who is an expert on sleep deprivation: his heroine is Mrs Thatcher, who can apparently manage on a ration of four hours. Dr Dudden is barking mad, of course, but then so are many of his patients, not to mention those who work for him. The similarity of Ashdown, his clinic, to quite another kind of institution is hardly fortuitous. But then it might be asked whether his patients, all mildly disordered, could have found their way unassisted to a slightly more orthodox form of therapy. They end badly: suicide, coma, sex change, general bewilderment. A gross mismanagement of resources, as Dr Dudden would say, but only if he were still lucid.

Ashdown was once a university hall of residence, a large grey house somewhere on the coast. As students, Gregory, Sarah, Robert, Terry, and Veronica all met and fell in and out of love there in the early 1980s. None was remarkable at the time, except for Sarah, who suffered from narcolepsy, a tendency to fall asleep at odd moments, and also to dream in a manner indistinguishable from reality. She also suffered from cataplexy, so that a siege of emotion, even of laughter, would send her into a state of semi-consciousness and thus disrupt her normal life. Terry was only interested in films, and the parallel between dreams and films is painstakingly, and, on the last page, triumphantly established. Robert was in love with Sarah, Sarah was in love with Veronica, and Gregory was passionately attached to Sarah's eyelids. …

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