A lonely woman, her likeness carved into the scroll of a beautiful viol, slowly metamorphoses into a stringed instrument herself to capture her husband's attention. A grotesquely overweight woman magically sprouts iridescent wings to help free the sylphlike self buried under folds of fat. An elegant theatrical performer electrifies audiences with his musical flatulence.
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum's luminous debut novel, "Madeleine Is Sleeping," a finalist for the National Book Award, is one of those mystifying books that dance between fantasy and reality, the dream world and the present moment, humor and pathos. Chock full of metaphors, deftly disguised allegories, allusions, and illusions, it is a hallucinogenic fairy tale that veers between the clinical clarity of hard fact and a surreal mysticism, with a huge fuzzy gray area in the middle that keeps the reader constantly off guard. Nothing is quite as simple as it seems.
The fable hinges on a young girl's mysterious coma. In a provincial French village, Madeleine has fallen into a deep, impenetrable sleep. As her family presides over her, watching every twitch, every smile, every sigh for signs of revival, Madeleine has fantastical dreams that betray a burgeoning sexuality. These dreams reflect on her past and allude to an awareness on some level of what is happening around her, making it difficult at times to distinguish between what is real and what is imagined. Chapters are brief, sometimes only a sentence or two. Sometimes they catapult the reader without warning forward and back in time and into different streams of consciousness.
"Madeleine is Sleeping" is a challenging read. Its shifts in time and tone can be trying for those used to more linear development. One is often pulled up short by a revelation or narrative twist that makes one ask, "What just happened here?" It's best to suspend disbelief and dive in without expectations. Bynum's lush, poetic imagery is full of vivid, sensuous details one can almost smell, taste, and feel. At times it can get quite unsavory, as in recalling the voyeuristic widow who pays a small group of gypsies to perform acts of masochism and humiliation for her titillation. And it's more than a little peculiar in spots, sometimes self-indulgently obtuse, as if the author is jerking us around with a pinch of mischievous malice.
The most compelling through-line is the sexual awakening of Madeleine through her dream self, initiated by real experiences that perhaps triggered her sleeping flight from reality. From early experimentation, she graduates in her dreams to more adventurous fare. It culminates in a moment of pure physical need and awareness that the author beautifully captures with a reflection that is achingly human and poignantly telling. "The photographer embraces her, and for one or two minutes it feels fairly wonderful. . . . There is only weight, warmth, covers, breath. . . . But after one or two minutes have passed, the embrace becomes intolerable. She feels the panic of the dying: a swarming on her skin; a series of soft explosions coming closer; the difficulty of finding her next breath."
Yet as soon as they part, she finds herself missing him. "She cannot tell which is more strange: enjoying his closeness or thinking she might die, or suffering this sad bout of appetite." In her sleep, Madeleine has lost her childhood.
Powerful and hauntingly elusive, "Madeleine is Sleeping" is as much of a puzzle at the end as in the beginning. What lingers is not the narrative, but discreet, exquisitely wrought images that hover in the back of the brain, yet seem to evaporate if one tries too hard to make sense of them. They are much like the wedding veil Madeleine's mother pulls out of her secret chest one day. "A thousand tiny stitches hang aloft in the morning air . . . up it rises, curling like smoke, until at last it dissolves . . . darts off merrily in all directions, the thousand stitches revealing themselves as moths."