by Madison Smartt Bell
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 290 pp. $19.95
In the three days during which this novel's action takes place, protagonist Adrian Strother finds himself with a rather full plate: His live-in lover leaves; he is visited by two individuals who played pivotal roles in his previous life as a heroin addict; he attempts to cure a woman of agoraphobia only to discover that her affliction runs tragically deeper than a fear of open places; he is pursued by two young men whose intent turns out to be as diabolical as their hairdos; his contact at Scotland Yard involves him in a case of child killings; and he can't get to sleep. Oh yeah, also his snake refuses to eat and something must be done about the dying mouse that was supposed to be the snake's meal.
Any one of these subplots (even -- or perhaps especially -- the one involving the snake) would make an interesting short story, but Madison Smartt Bell has instead lashed them all together into a strange raft of a novel that stays afloat by the triple forces of Bell's excellent writing, keen power of observation and a genuine thoughtfulness that both challenges and respects the reader's intelligence.
Adrian Strother, former junkie, is an expatriate living in England and working as a hypnotist trying to help people cure their phobias or stop smoking or get over insomnia, with which Strother himself is afflicted. In fact, much of the ethereal quality of "Doctor Sleep" can perhaps be attributed to Strother's insomnia, which at times skews his perception of reality while also prompting his interior monologues to wing off into spiritual realms.
"Hermes Trismegistus slept, his corporeal sense bound as by some heavy ligature, but his soul went gliding to the heights, and in the inspiration of his sleep a being called Pimander appeared to him ...
"That light, Pimander said, is I myself, Nous, thy God, and the luminous word issuing from the Nous is the Son of God ...
"From the illuminated Word, Pimander said, next sprang the Demiurge, god of fire and of breath, to make the seven planets, Seven Governors each with its own power, encircling one another in seven spheres, and the name of their government is destiny ..."
Those are the first sentences of the first three paragraphs of a passage that continues on for nearly two pages, one of the more sustained examples of the revelatory writing that dominates "Doctor Sleep." Maybe the reason Adrian Strother can't sleep is that he simply can't stop thinking. From his mind and mouth are delivered opinionated observations on topics ranging from addiction and its possible cures to the nature of evil to Freud and hypnotism.
But Strother's curiosity and ruminations are focused most powerfully on the 16th-century philosopher-astronomer-mathematician Giordano Bruno, later known as il Nolano after his birthplace of Nola, Italy. We learn of the Brunian memory wheel ("... an entire cosmogony, embracing everything from the clot of dung to the wild and furious singing of the angels"), why Bruno embraced Copernicanism ("... because of the promise of infinite worlds, for the knowledge of their distant revolution around those large animals, which are called stars"), and Giordano Bruno's explanation of why a pig would prefer death if he "had a sense of the difference which exists between his own condition and that of man ..."
As these selections show, "Doctor Sleep" is very much a novel of ideas. This remains true in spite of the apparent action indicated by the aforementioned subplots (a serial killer, pursuit by drug thugs, a shadowy figure headquartered in Scotland Yard etc.). These subplots are so fragmented that they appear and disappear and then reappear like the story lines on a half dozen television channels that someone else in the room keeps flipping through via remote control. In the end, the subplots serve primarily to provide events that move Adrian Strother through the novel's three days. Strother is in control, operating as a true protagonist, only when he's on his own intellectual territory.
But in the hands of Bell, who has had five novels and two collections of short stories published, the intellectual territory can prove as fascinating as anything that's happening out there on the mean streets of London. Bell is a master observer, capturing perfectly the frustrations and debilitations of insomnia and even making the death of a mouse oddly moving. If one of the functions of a novelist is to interpret our world, Bell does so with great precision, getting it exactly right, for example, when he has Strother understand why a young man would choose literally to deface himself with a tattoo:
"The message was simply, I give up. There'll be no more school, no job, no nothing. No expectations, whatsoever. No more trying. I GIVE UP! And go out branded with my hopelessness, for all the others to admire."
The reviewer is a novelist who lives on a farm in West Virginia. His most recent book is "Lie to Me."