LIKE RESPONSIBILITIES, stories begin in dreams, tales the brain tells itself when it has nothing to do. The persistence of dreaming illustrates poet-novelist R. H. W. Dillard's dictum that human beings have an appetite for narrative as strong as that for food or drink; and I have long thought that Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams is the most profound study ever done of the mental process of literary composition.
These reflections are inspired anew by The Queen of Egypt, a work for narrative as pure as any I have ever read. By pure narrative I mean stories in which nothing happens or which are about nothing; tales, parables, or vignettes which have no referent or resonance in the waking world. In that sense, this book is a series of dreams and uneventful dreams at that.
In "Destinies," for example, the central character nurses a hopeless love, drops out of graduate school and goes to work as an editor in a New York publishing house. He reads a manuscript extolling the joys of gay life and finds himself "wishing he were a case history in that wonderful book of happy people."
He begins hanging around gay bars, and simultaneously acquires a male lover and a female author who writes novels "extolling the joys of sex, family life, and standard commitment." He switches publishing houses, loses weight, contracts an odd disease and a pill habit that finally collapses at the age of 70, sobbing that his life has been to quiet: "There were no accidents . . . Something should have happened."
These events, we are told, stretch over the seven decades from 1939 until about 2009. They are narrated with a good deal of literary huffing and pulling: allusions to Kierkegaard, Kant, Shakespeare, Thomas Pynchon, Dostoevsky and Isak Dinesen, and sentences like "coincidence, the only deus ex machina we have, and which is undoubtedly a very small nasty animal covered with warts, is about to take a hand." But the actual happenings, as can be seen above, are roughly what would fill one decade of New York literary life; the story, which would take perhaps three minutes to tell over lunch, stretches to 50 labored pages. It is a bloodless, thoroughly artificial tale, skillfully told -- the daydream of a writer who has nothing to say.
Dreams, and images from dreams, haunt all the characters in "The Queen of Egypt," and elsewhere this approach works much better, most notably in "Why the Castle," a haunting Borgesian fable which explores the frightening seductive power of the images in our minds.
"Advice" is a chilling parable about the power of guilt; "His Daughter's House" shows us a man who cannot be at peace around those who love him. In the most successful story, "Antiques," it is not what happens (almost nothing) but what has happened (the hideous suffering of two Russian Jews in a labor camp years before) that gives power and joy to the luminous ending.
The Bible of the Beasts of the Little Field is evidently intended as a companion to The Queen of Egypt; the two are done up in matching dust jackets, handsomely adorned with pictures of waterfowl. Like its counterpart, this book of verse is a thoroughly literary, uneventful volume, Schaeffer ostentatiously salutes T. S. Eliot ("Of dry leaves blowing upon hard rock,/and marble statues wed/in a clatter of shells/and a beach without sand . . . "), William Carlos Williams ("Everything is here./Even the bulldozer, bright yellow./Even its pocks/Of red rust.") and W. H. Auden ("Whom do you love? asked the sparrow./The rock, answered the lizard.") But this book has no grand theme to match those of these masters, and Schaeffer calls upon this erudition largely to describe the events which takes place in the "little field" of the title, which seems to be her own back yard.
In this little field, "is there an inch/Without living creatures?" Well, no, but these creatures are domesticate d and diminished. There is a "little lamb," some "little moles," a "little worm," some "little sheep" and "little seeds." A woman watches the scene, and her "little cloud-breaths-/Rise up to the others" and "little bells/Play so in the yard."
Improbable as it seems, the only creature that bestrides this small dreamy landscape with energy, purpose and dimension, is felis domestica, the common housecat, to which, as a species, the author seems quite devoted. The title poem breathlessly relates the story of Nameless the cat, his narrow escape from a nasty neighbor, his fight to regain vigorous Tomhood, his mating with the winsome Missy, and the growth of their kittens. "Jubilate Agno: Thomas Cat" is a paean to another adorable feline: For I love my cat with my heart,/For I love my cat beyond all reason./For he is not even a cat. He is love in his fur./For he is not even a good cat./For when he is hungry he rips open the trash bags/And spreads his tins all around. . . ."
Schaeffer has evidently been reading the real Bible for use in this one, and the result is distressingly elephantine, like a combination of King David and Erma Bombeck.
When she is not writing about cats and little animals, Schaeffer draws much of her imagery from dreams again, that time when "This is the hour of fear, when the touch/Of the head on the pillow jars the skull's/Huge halls and theaters, and when the lids shut on night,/The footlights start in with their burning./The actresses and actors skillful with makeup,/And in nightmares, small figures, black-cloacked,/Try nailing the door shut."
Some psychologists theorize that dreams are a way of discharging tensions and sensory images that build up during waking hours and would otherwise overhelm the dreamer. Perhaps these two fragmented, incomplete books fulfill the same function for the prolific Schaeffer: finding herself with nothing to write about, she had to use her literary faculties nonetheless. w