Tuesday, 6 October 2009

The House of Sleep

"The house of sleep" is one of my favourite book, a novel by Jonathan Coe and the topic of my final dissertation at the end of the first three years University.

The novel is diveded in six sections, the first is titled 'awake', then you can find the four phases of sleep and the last one R.E.M. phase, in the end there are three Appendixes (Poem, Letter, Transcript). Each section consists of three chapters, odd-numbered chapters are set in 1983-84, even-numbered chapters are set in June 1996.
The different sections of the novel are closely linked through words, they don't come to an end just dissolve, like an interrupted dream, in an incomplete sentence, the final word of each stage of sleeping is picked up at the beginning of the following one, but in another context and sometime even by another character.

The story deals with a group of students that share a house in th '80s and fall in and out of love, the we see them in the '90s with their lives changed. We can say that the very protagonist of the whole novel is Sarah, she suffer from narcolepsy, and in the 80's she's not aware of it. Narcolepsy is characterized by Eccessive Daytime Sleepiness (EDS), cataplexy, vivid hallucinations, brief episodes of total paralysis. Who suffer from Narcolepsy can fall asleep even in active conditions, like eating or talking, what is called sleep attack. Adult patients often perceive narcoleptic symptoms as embarassing and social isolation may result. They may experience interpersonal problems, and are perceived as lazy or are suspected of illegal drug use.
Sarah's symptoms will cause a large number of misundedrstanding throughout the story, sometime caomically and sometime less. At the beginning of the story Sarah has an affair with Gregory, a fastidious student of medicine, who seems to be more interested in her as a medical case than as a person, and her girlfriend. We will find him as a doctor in '96, a very precise doctor who run a clinic for sleep disordes who starts to hate sleep, because "the sleeper is helpless; powerless. Sleep puts even the strongest people at the mercy of the weakest and the most feeble". Then she knows Robert, who falls hopelessly in love with her, Robert seems to be one of the few to understand that she suffers from a real desease. At the beginning of the story he's studing modern languages, but then he change to psychiatry, probably to find a way to help her. He has is life totally changed by this woman. Terry is a student at Ashdown with Robert and Sarah, he sleeps almost 14 hours per day, then he will be one of Dr. Gregory patients because of his insomnia, he says that is his curse, always tired and never tired enough to sleep. As a student he was "plagued by dreams" and then he became a journalist obsessed by movies, a kind of dreaming without sleeping.

Sarah's symptoms cause a large number of misunderstandings throughout of the novel, but narcolepsy is also an excuse to talk about medicine and doctors. There is a comical conference with psychologists who try to sustain their own ideas even when everything demonstrate they are wrong. Doctors who consider research even more important than their patients' lives. Jonathan Coe is humorous but while you're laughing inevitably think about the context in wich the scenes takes place and some characters in the story are frightening when they have the chance to explain their own vision of life.

In the end is one of the best novel I have ever read, it is well-written, witty, never banal. Give it a chance!