Is Sleeping

Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

Harcourt: 260 pp., $22

In Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum's luminous and daring novel, the border between dreams and waking is not so much blurred as erased: Each delicious chapter -- usually a page or less -- is like a half-remembered episode from the depths of sleep, as indelible as it is fleeting. Story lines emerge, become entangled and then fade into the ether. And just when we think this oddball narrative is about to rise to the surface of wakefulness, we're plunged once again into blissful doubt. The effect is haunting and often downright creepy, calling to mind magic-lantern shows, spectral photography, the sepia-toned surrealism of silent films by Guy Maddin.

"Madeleine Is Sleeping" -- the title is far more direct than anything contained in the book -- takes us back to a French village in what vaguely resembles a previous century, when photographers prepared collodion plates and village idiots snoozed in hay lofts. Here, Madeleine, the book's somnolent heroine, dreams herself a parallel life. She may have lapsed into a coma after having her hands plunged into boiling lye as a punishment for affording Monsieur Jouy -- the aforementioned village idiot -- a degree of sexual satisfaction. With hands like paddles, the comatose Madeleine now journeys in a fanciful realm populated by grotesques: M. Pujol, the famed performer known as Le Petomane, whose flatulence can snuff out candles and tootle "Clair de Lune"; Matilde (a.k.a. Mme. Cochon), an obese busybody who sprouts wings, flies all over the place and takes an overweening interest in her own excrement; and Marguerite, an opera star tossed into oblivion by the rise of a flashy castrato singer.

"Madeleine Is Sleeping" is so joyously out there that it frustrates, at every turn, any nagging sense of humbuggery. Just when you're tempted to compare this flight of whimsy to one of Le Petomane's greatest hits, Bynum keeps your indignation at bay with yet another breathtaking image, another eerie joke. Madeleine's mother's words -- spoken in astonishment at the good fortune that visits the household while her daughter slumbers -- also apply to Bynum and her hushed dream of a book: "Be silent as saints. We do not wish to wake her."


100 Strokes of the

Brush Before Bed

Melissa P., translated from the Italian by Lawrence Venuti

Black Cat/Grove Press; 166 pp., $12 paper

This mere slip of a novel, written by 16-year-old Melissa Panarello, has sold nearly a million copies since it was published in Italy last year. The reason becomes abundantly evident: It doesn't take long before the author's teen alter ego -- she's also named Melissa -- is busy having sex in just about every conceivable style, method, position and combination.

It's the "Story of O" for the Ashlee Simpson set, Euro division, as Melissa ventures forth on her motorino scooter from blushing girlhood (Klimt posters festoon her bedroom walls) to unleash her inner succubus: seducing blunt egotists Daniele and Roberto; sharing fantasies with her cross-dressing boy-prostitute pal, Ernesto; hooking up with her suave math tutor, Valerio (she mails him her panties; he calls himself "Professor Humbert"); logging into chat rooms; hooking up with an idiotic adulterer whom Melissa humiliates with a blunt object; and happily participating in the occasional group scenario in a moldering Sicilian palazzo. No wonder Melissa writes: "Things aren't going so well at school. It may be because I'm lazy and scattered. Or because the teachers are too reductive and dogmatic.... " Or perhaps being blindfolded in a roomful of naked strangers is cutting into her homework time.

Is this what Chuck Berry -- that randy old sage -- had in mind when he wrote "Sweet Little Sixteen"? Melissa P. (the truncated handle isn't so much a pitch for anonymity as it is a coy tip of the brassiere to the initialed authors of bus-station novels and Victorian porn) elevates the time-honored concept of jailbait to something vaguely approaching art. After all, Signorina P. has a flair for those archaic signifiers -- "my sex," "my Secret" -- that say "erotica," making this bawdy chronicle of the schoolgirl libido -- designed to shock the browsers at Barnes & Noble -- as tame as it is contrived.

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