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Girl Interrupted

Reviewed by John Crowley
Sunday, October 3, 2004; Page BW07


By Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. Harcourt. 257 pp. $22

The realist tradition in prose fiction has grown so powerful and wide-ranging over the last couple of centuries that most of the fiction we consider fantasy uses what might be called the physics of realism: Time passes in one direction, persons are born, eat and drink, talk and walk, maintain their identities as they do in "realistic" fiction. The main alternative tradition tends to be based on forcing the reader by various means to focus on the verbal construct that bears the fiction: This thing is a word thing, not a record. Lasting works that dispense with the physics of realism without becoming self-referential verbal constructs are rare, and they tend to resemble dreams, or at least to invite comparison to dreams.

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In Sarah Shun-lien Bynum's first novel the comparison is at once obvious and problematic, and one source of the book's attraction: For there is a dreamer in the book, the eponymous Madeleine, and the events told of are at once her dream and not her dream, at once generated by her and about her. In a series of brief chapters or vignettes, Bynum describes Madeleine's prolonged sleeping -- "Madeleine is as still as a mummy, but when they hold the mirror beneath her nose, ghostly shapes appear on its cold surface" -- as well as her adventures on her dream-journeys.

Madeleine's tales occur in a fairylandish belle-epoque France, where her large family flourishes making wonderful preserves from the fruits of their orchard. Her mother believes that Madeleine's sleeping somehow protects the family's health and fortune; when Madeleine ventures out, or dreams she does, those fortunes indeed turn bad. Her first and determining fall (in a chapter headed "she dreams") is to visit the "half-wit" M. Jouy and, as the other village girls have done before her, masturbate him for a penny. Unlike the other girls, though she doesn't know why, she is caught and horribly punished: Her hands are thrust into a pot of boiling lye, which bakes them into mitten-like paddles. Since her sisters and her mother contemplate these paddles as Madeleine lies sleeping, the sin and the punishment occur both in dream and in "actuality," unless Madeleine's family's actions are part of her dream too, or both are and aren't.

Madeleine thereupon lies sleeping and is simultaneously sent to Paris to be one of 12 little girls in two straight lines who live in a house covered in vines. She escapes to live with a troupe of gypsy showmen, and the story begins to draw on the dreamlike connections between appearance and reality that come with the milieu of freaks, audiences and display. The troupe includes solemn and timid M. Pujol, with whom Madeleine falls in love and who, billed as Le Petomane, has the uncanny ability to imitate a thousand sounds by passing wind; and Charlotte, whose hair has grown over her breast and can be played like a viol. Now out of fashion with audiences, the troupe becomes the private plaything of a rich old lady who likes to earwitness Madeleine paddling M. Pujol's backside while Charlotte plays and Adrien the photographer takes pictures for her to see.

This does not exhaust Bynum's strange cast. It's a tribute to her talent that the lurid and excessive, nearly Gothic tale-telling seems neither crowded nor outrageous but instead delicate, grave and almost evanescent. That the story actually is a story, and a strangely well-carpentered one, only gradually dawns on the reader -- though it's a story whose dream-logic alone is completed.

The many plot-strands ("plot" in this book meaning something music-like, involving repetition, inversion, variation and development rather than a consequent stream of events) come together as the book narrows toward a conclusion. Madeleine's mother and sisters rescue M. Jouy the "half-wit" from the insane asylum to which he was remanded; Mother has a plan to marry her sleeping Madeleine to M. Jouy and reverse the curse on the family. Meanwhile Madeleine plans to spring M. Pujol, the flatulent, who has committed himself to the same asylum (do you begin to see how the really very clever strategies of the book work?). She intends to bring him to her home village, where he will be able once again to perform, in an improvised theater she will make, with the help of her sisters, in the barn where first she pleasured M. Jouy, if she did. Disappointment, failure, but also completion and finally Madeleine . . . falls asleep.

Does Bynum's book have precedents among the dream-books? I was reminded a little of Georges Bataille's The Eye, without the hysterical pornographic edge. The cool, shifting perspectives, where scenes enlarge and vanish in a paragraph, suggest Bruno Schulz. Lewis Carroll occurred to somebody, for a photograph of his adorns the cover with weird aptness, though his hard-edged exactness of dream is not Bynum's. The masterful way she has kept her disappearing balls in the air -- mostly by means of a voice at once sensuous and humorous, mellifluous and matter-of-fact -- reminds of no one, unless it's that wonderful dream-narrator we all possess, who tells us the most outlandish and dirty stories quite calmly, and doesn't mind doubling us and others, or making things happen twice at the same time. •

John Crowley's most recent book is "Novelties & Souvenirs," a collection of stories.

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