THE HOUSE OF SLEEP.<i> By Jonathan Coe</i> .<i> Alfred A. Knopf: 338 pp. $24</i>
Jonathan Coe is the late Kingsley Amis’ most talented successor in employing the refreshment of dismay to denounce the state of Britain and beyond. Appropriately contrarian, he stands in the opposite corner from his predecessor.
The elder Amis came along after the last war to do comic and furious battle with the pieties and hypocrisies of the cultural left. In the 1990s, after a couple of decades of Thatcherism and a post-Thatcherism so sticky as to have entangled Tony Blair’s Labor Party as well, Coe works off-the-wall havoc upon the right. With both writers, it is a matter of nosing out the spirit of the age and incinerating it.
For Coe, author of the brilliantly unstable “The Winshaw Legacy,” a satiric descent into the hell of the bottom line, one part of this spirit is the abandoning of public community and social concern in favor of profits. Another part is a polymorphous confusion of ideals, relationships and the sense of self among the successor generation to the children of the ‘60s.
In “The House of Sleep,” an intricately brainy affair, often disconcerting, sometimes moving, frequently funny and occasionally indecipherable, Coe eviscerates the bottom-liners with hilarious bare-toothed ferocity. Most of this focuses on one of the four principal characters: Gregory Dudden, the glittery-eyed psychologist whose sleep-study institution becomes a mad scientist’s scheme to maximize human productivity.
The other aspect of the age’s spirit he treats differently. Upon three characters--innocents more or less and wanderers in a world of oddly skewed values--he bestows a satiric compassion that may ultimately be more lethal. Seemingly as errant as they--indeed, the reader is never more than 90% sure where the author stands, an oddly liberating thing in a satire--Coe accompanies them to their untenable destinations.
“The House of Sleep” is put together with the compressed complexity of a watch movement: cogs and springs setting off other cogs and springs, movements and meanings doubled and reversed, coincidences that turn out to be precisely engineered, randomly emerging characters and events that, in fact, are fatefully linked. Coe makes everything work to a purpose, although there are one or two ends that either are loose or are so subtly linked that I missed them.
Chapter by chapter, the book alternates between the mid-'80s, when the four principal characters are in their last year at college, and a time 12 years later, when they are sadder and conceivably wiser. Only Dudden is unchanged: a comic monster from the start.
We see him first as the coldly controlling lover of Sarah, whom he bullies and plays mind games with. Initially impressed by his comment after a performance of Bach’s “Art of the Fugue” (“Preposterous tempi in the eleventh contrapunctus, didn’t you think?”), Sarah eventually gets fed up. Dudden had plunged into bed and into her one night despite a plea that she didn’t feel like it. His insanely macho rejoinder: “It’s all right, I won’t be long.”
Later, as the power-mad director of the sleep institute--housed in a bleak seaside building formerly used as their college residence--he discloses his real interest. He is trying to get people to go without sleep. He hates sleep, in fact: Not only does it eliminate eight hours of economic value each day, but it obliterates the difference between the superior people and the ordinary. Sleep, to him, is socialism.
Sleep, on the other hand, was the essence, the imaginative nourishment of Terry, a rigorously pure film student in his college days. He wrote his thesis on an Italian neo-realistic director so harsh and obscure that no print remains of his masterpiece, “Latrine Duty.” (One of the few people who saw it shot himself; another found himself unable to urinate in the company of other men.) Terry talked about making a film that would document the entire life of a 50-year-old (“Rather difficult to insure,” a classmate objected). What sustained his idealism were 14 daily hours of sleep and the gorgeous dreams they contained.
Twelve years later, he is at Dudden’s institute, a film critic who stages 150-hour movie marathons and doesn’t sleep at all. Along with sleep has gone the idealism; he writes a corrosive, postmodern kind of criticism that dismisses film art and upholds violent junk films for “their hooligan energy.” Terry has been not so much corrupted by the spirit of the age as mangled by it; at the end, he will undergo a dreadful redemption.
Sarah is one of the two remaining central characters: frail (even though she gets rid of Dudden), lacking confidence and subject to a sleep disorder opposite to Terry’s--a kind of narcolepsy. The other is Robert, passionate but gentle to the point of paralysis. They are star-crossed lovers to the end, and the star-crossing is wildly far-fetched, comic and camp, as well as a commentary on the oddities of our contemporary moral frontiers.
At college, fleeing Dudden-type maleness, Sarah decides she is a lesbian and has an affair with another student. Robert pursues her desperately, nevertheless. Coe has devised a series of scenes, particularly a sublimely drawn beach outing with a child (who 12 years later becomes a sudden agent of the plot), in which it is clear to the reader, though not to Sarah, that she loves him.
Too many conflicting and confusing messages about male and female identity are floating about, though, for Sarah to recognize her feelings or, conversely, for Robert to exercise even the minimum of male insistence--he is the anti-Dudden--that might help her to. The fog of contemporary mores is such that it breeds extremes. Concluding that Sarah is definitively a lesbian, Robert takes the all-for-love step of submitting to a sex-change operation. It is tragicomedy because by the time he finally meets her again, Sarah, her gender-bending a phase, has married and divorced.
All this barely touches on a few of the main threads of Coe’s novel. There are dozens of peripheral stories. Sarah’s sleep disorder includes dreams that persist when she wakes up, leading to a series of misunderstandings ranging from poignant to slapstick. Dudden attends a meeting at which cost-control management techniques are comically retailed to a group of indignant psychologists. Terry visits the laboratory where sleep-deprived rats are tortured and where Dudden comes to an appropriate mad-scientist end.
Yet most of these excursions, displaying the author’s inventiveness and talent for wild comedy, are closely knotted. Each in turn becomes part of the main story--sometimes, it is true, with a considerable straining of coincidence.
If Coe is in some sense an heir of Kingsley Amis (more so than his son, the spectacular but constricted Martin Amis), he has an unlikely contemporary cousin. The half-hinged comedy, the melodramatic and highly colored extremes and, beneath them, the mix of the humane and the severe--all these suggest, as much as anything, the films of the Spaniard Pedro Almodovar, and particularly “Live Flesh,” his most recent and most expansive.