Thinking patterns

Sleeping patterns by J.R. Crook. 2012. Published by Legend Press. Not translated into French. (It would suit Les Editions de Minuit, though)

Crook_Sleeping_PatternsI rarely receive solicitations from writers or publishers to read their books and I don’t complain about it. Indeed, I’m not comfortable with the idea or the feeling of someone expecting a billet from me, and of course, a glowing one. Otherwise, why bother sending free copies of books? I don’t want to feel guilty about writing a negative billet. Of course, I’m not conceited enough to think that a negative billet on Book Around The Corner will ruin the book’s chance of success; I just think about the writers who put something about themselves for us to read and well, I suppose negative billets aren’t agreeable to read. So, when I received an email from J.R. Crook asking whether I’d like to read his book, I wanted to refuse right away. I decided to go and have a look at Litlove’s review of his novel, Sleeping Patterns. The review is entitled In praise of “Difficult books”. I thought “Ooh, not good.” I browsed through it and spotted a reference to experimental fiction and Roland Barthes and it made me cringe. “Definitely not good” was the next thought. I emailed the writer, warning him that I probably wasn’t the right reader for his book, having a hectic history of hit-and-miss with experimental fiction. But he was brave enough to send it anyway.

So Sleeping Patterns? I’m supposed to write a summary of the book and I won’t. It would ruin everything for someone who would want to read it. Let’s say it opens with an introduction by Annelie Strandli, a.k.a Grethe. She’s a character of the book and she explains that the author, J.R. Crook, is dead. She received Sleeping Patterns by the post, chapter after chapter. The table of contents lists chapters in the order Grethe received and read them, ie not in the chronological order of the events. I was intrigued.

I started to read, not knowing what to expect. The chapters are in a strange order, the characters pop in and out; most of the events happen in a residence for students in London. Their lives are intertwined and one of the characters is Jamie, the author of the novel. It reminded me of Short Cuts by Robert Altman and of Money by Martin Amis, because he’s also in the story as a writer. I was about to take a sheet of paper to write the names of the characters and map out the links between them but I stopped. I spend ten hours a day in an office, thinking rationally; there is no room for the irrational in my job, believe me. I was about to slip into my usual and well-experienced thinking pattern when I decided against it. I thought it would be healthy for me to give up the rational for a moment, to let myself be drifted by the book, catching what the writer wanted me to catch when I was reading a specific chapter, hoping that the confusion would dispel as I progressed in my reading. I was right.

I read Sleeping Patterns in one sitting, not able to put it down. I was in the perfect mood for it, the rain outside my windows mirroring the rain in the book. At a point, the novel questions our ability to daydream, an activity I enjoy but can rarely indulge in because I don’t have time for this, except when I’m on holiday. That’s why I love the beach. It’s a place where adults are authorized to lay down and daydream.

It’s a novella of about 110 pages and it’s the right length for it because reading it in one sitting is recommended. You don’t go out of the atmosphere and have to re-enter it after picking the book again. You have all the details in mind and it’s easier to reconcile the pieces of the jigsaw and see the interactions. There are multiple layers in the book but it’s not confusing as the story between Grethe and the aspiring writer Berry Walker remains the life-line of the narrative. You wander a bit, don’t go from point A to point B in a straight line but you remain on the main path.

I didn’t find Sleeping Patterns difficult to read or difficult to understand. I think that The Ravishing of Lol V Stein by Marguerite Duras is a lot more difficult to read than this. (Same thing for a more conventional narrative as The Line of Beauty by Hollinghurst.) After making a conscious decision to forget about the usual construction of a book, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The chapters felt like memories or flashbacks from dreams. After Proust, everyone knows that memories don’t come in chronological order or sorted in a logical or rational way. They come unexpectedly and dreams aren’t always consistent, are they?

I’m happy I decided to go past my initial wariness and that I gave this novella a chance. Changing of thinking pattern brought a bit of fresh air, I should do it more often. If I have a cheeky message for the author, it would be this one: Lots of people who read know nothing about literary criticism and theories. They just enjoy reading and appreciate a good style. Scaring them off with references to highbrow literature thinkers doesn’t do any justice to your book. Don’t burden your writing with these heavy shadows, it deserves better.

You can read an excellent review by Vishy here and another one by Andrew Blackman here.

  1. May 1, 2013 at 4:26 pm

    I’m not a huge fan of experimental fiction, but I can see how reading it (or other genres I don’t enjoy often) can be a “breath of fresh air.” I don’t accept review copies anymore largely for the reasons you mentioned.

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    • May 1, 2013 at 11:21 pm

      Hello, thank you for commenting.
      I can’t say I don’t like experimental fiction but I have trouble understanding it. (Like Duras sometimes) I always fear that the energy spent on the style or the experiment will be missing on the plot and that the book ends up with an innovative style and a weak story.

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  2. May 1, 2013 at 4:39 pm

    “It’s a novella of about 110 pages and it’s the right length for it because reading it in one sitting is recommended. ”

    An interesting comment: someone in Goodreads (who didn’t care for the book) said that I was probably best read in one sitting.

    I downloaded a sample.

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    • May 1, 2013 at 11:22 pm

      I don’t think a sample will help you.
      I’m interested in reading your response to it.

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      • May 2, 2013 at 1:49 am

        Oh I don’t know. Sometimes I read a sample and know immediately that the book is/isn’t for me. One of the benes of the kindle

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        • May 2, 2013 at 8:51 pm

          I agree, I download samples too, to check the difficulty of the language.

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  3. May 2, 2013 at 7:19 pm

    I just received my copy from the author today and am looking forward to reading it after having read your review. I wouldn’t really call this experimental, it’s just non-linear. I will read it once I get the time to stay immersed in the atmosphere. Thanks for the suggestion. He asked me for other bloggers who might enjoy this and the only one I could think of was Max. I’m glad I was wrong and that you liked it. I wonder if Max will read it. The book I read recently Faces in the Crowd had some similarities, I think.

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    • May 2, 2013 at 8:57 pm

      I’m glad you still want to read it after my billet. I’ll be interested in your review of this one.

      I don’t know if it’s experimental or not, maybe not if I liked it. 🙂 Litlove says it is and she’s more competent than me on that matter. You know I’m not good with categories, genres and the like.

      I think Max would like it if he found the time to read it.

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  4. May 3, 2013 at 5:40 am

    Nice review, Emma. I liked ‘Sleeping Patterns’ when I read it. I found the chapter sequence unusual, but it made sense in the end. I also found the story-in-story format quite interesting with characters moving across different layers of the book. I liked very much what you said about how experimentation sometimes affects the plot and the book ends up having an experimental style with a weak plot. I think that is very true in many cases. I haven’t read Marguerite Duras’ ‘The Ravishing of Lol V Stein’. I would like to read it sometime. I tried reading Alan Hollinghurst’s ‘The Line of Beauty’ many years back when it won the Booker, but for some reason I couldn’t read beyond a few chapters. I found Hollinghurst’s prose very beautiful though. I hope to try reading it again sometime. Thanks for this wonderful review. And thanks for the link.

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    • May 4, 2013 at 5:32 pm

      I also enjoyed the story-in-story and the different layers of the book. It explores the relationship between writer and reader in an interesting way, showing the interaction. I don’t know the answer to the question “do I know a writer personnally when I have read their books?” Sometimes it feels that way, doesn’t it?

      I agree with you about Hollinghurst: beautiful prose.

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  5. Matthew (Bibliofreak.net)
    May 3, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    I read this a few months ago and hosted Jamie on my blog – I have similar reservations to you when accepting books and so consequently only take a small number. I’ve got to say, Jamie was a thoroughly lovely guy to share e-mails with, and I really enjoyed talking about his book with him.

    You make some good points here, and for what it’s worth, I’d call the book experimental in its way. I also thought of Martin Amis popping up in ‘Money’ although I suspect that exposes my own limited knowledge of authorial intrusion/inclusion more than anything as it’s really the only other good example I had to hand. I’m not on your point about ‘The Line of Beauty’ though, are you saying you found it a difficult read? I wasn’t sure if I was mis-reading you.

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    • May 3, 2013 at 7:26 pm

      Hello, thank you for dropping by and commenting. I’ll have a look at your blog too.

      Yes, I found The Line of Beauty difficult. I’m French and the prose was a bit complicated for me. My English isn’t good enough to read that kind of long sentences easily.

      About Sleeping Patterns.
      In French we say “il n’y a que les imbéciles qui ne changent pas d’avis” (which means “only dummies won’t change their mind”) and I’m glad I was intelligent enough to read it anyway.

      I didn’t ask Jamie much about his book. I’m a reader who doesn’t care much about how the writer had the idea to write this story this way instead of another. I enjoy books for what they are or who they are and don’t pay much attention to the author. I don’t read interviews of writers either.

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      • Matthew (Bibliofreak.net)
        May 4, 2013 at 5:08 pm

        No problem Emma – I really enjoyed looking around your blog. I’ve been going for almost two years now, and I’ve always been a bit hit and miss with the social side of blogging. Lately I’ve been remembering how much I enjoyed it when I first started out and just looking down your blogroll has introduced me to loads of sites that I’m sure I’m going to enjoy reading on a regular basis!

        It’s an interesting point about The Line of Beauty – being pretty hopeless in any language other than English I have absolutely no idea what would translate well, and what wouldn’t. Hollignhurst is one of those authors who writes really understated, beautiful prose, and I’d never really thought about how it would read to someone for whom English is a second language.

        It sounds like your own ideas about fiction dovetail quite nicely with Jamie’s and indeed Sleeping Patterns‘. I’m always interested in finding out more about an author’s thoughts if I’ve enjoyed their work, about how the novel evolved etc. While I agree with Jamie that the work has to exist apart from the author, I’m still fascinated by the process, and really enjoyed hearing about how Sleeping Patterns evolved.

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        • May 4, 2013 at 5:41 pm

          I’m glad you discovered other blogs through my blogroll. There are wonderful sites online and it’s nice to read the thoughts of like-minded readers. It made my TBR explore, though. 🙂

          I read a lot in translation. I think anything can be translated nicely since someone has been able to translate La Disparition by Perec. It’s a question of time, money and skills. Lots of foreign writers are available in French, probably more than you have in English. I’m always frustrated to write a blogpost about an excellent book and be obliged to write that it’s not available in English.

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  6. May 6, 2013 at 7:18 pm

    I’m really glad you enjoyed this. I found it a properly original book, unusual but compelling, and there aren’t too many of those. I called it experimental because it’s such a big umbrella term, but I’m sure there are all sorts of other ways of describing it (it’s the sort of thing that keeps academics warm in the winter from the heat of discussion, but I have grown lazy about it now!). And whilst it does borrow theoretical concepts, I did say in my post that you don’t have to know anything about them to enjoy the book. I find the tricky thing about reviewing books like this is that half the potential audience will be drawn in if I mention the theoretical side, and the other half will be put off if I do. Heh, that’s blogging – you can’t always win! 🙂

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    • May 6, 2013 at 8:30 pm

      I can confirm first hand that you don’t need to know the theorical concepts to enjoy the books: I sure don’t know any of them (and to be honest, I’m not interested in knowing them. I can be very curious about some things and totally uninterested in others.)

      You know I’m a bit prejudiced against books trying first to address a theory and then take care of the plot. This one definitely avoided that pitfall.

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  7. June 8, 2014 at 9:17 pm

    It sounds rather good. I don’t recall being offered a copy, but thanks to Caroline for suggesting me (and she’s right, it does sound my sort of thing). Clearly you were right to approach the book on its own terms.

    I actually agree on not overburdening a book with comparisons. Trust the reader. It doesn’t matter if they get every reference (likely better they don’t or it’s probably too obvious) and if the book works those depths are there for those who want them but still influencing the experience for those who don’t pick them up.

    Sometimes the experimental label can be quite harmful. I was commenting today on an SF review which was discussing experimentalism, and I was reminded of a 60’s classic which contains some formalistic experimentation to bring across the sensation of being telepathic. It was never labelled experimental, never marketed that way, and readers who had never seen anything quite like it before had no problem at all. I suspect if it had been described as experimental it would never have become a classic as many potential readers would have been scared off.

    Totally agree on review copies by the way, it’s why I tend not to. I feel obliged to the author, and I do tend to prefer not to feel that.

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    • June 9, 2014 at 11:28 am

      I didn’t know about Caroline’s recommendation but I’m glad she pointed this book to you. You’ll probably like it.

      Comparisons can be harmful. The person who makes them always think about the readers they will attract and never about the readers they will deter. Too bad.

      The experimental label can be daunting. Honestly, The Encyclopaedia of Snow by Miano is a lot more experimental to me than this one. Sleeping Patterns is unusual but makes sense. It’s like the painting Jacqueline by Picasso. It’s not a usual portrait but you can see the woman, her position, her expression.

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  1. May 10, 2014 at 2:47 pm

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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