Coach House Books, Toronto, Ontario, 2020
140 pp., Paper, $21.95
What is a life altering discovery? How do we know it has occurred? In what fashion do we judge its content and implications, whether for good or ill? Does it appear just like that, the sudden fruit of an intuition previously unknown or barely sensed? And how, or how well, does disbelief enter, or its cousin, irony, keeping distant just enough what would otherwise sweep away ambiguous assumptions or shifting conceits?
These are some of the questions that seem to have animated S.D. Chrostowska in her charming dystopian novel, The Eyelid. From its first introductory line, a cautionary, if buoyant excerpt from Victor Hugo, the novel takes shape. Indeed, “there is nothing like the dream to create the future,” or, in this case, a fiction that the author unveils in forty-two brief chapters.
It begins on a park bench sometime after “I” -- for it is told by a narrator in the intimate language of first person has lost his job. -- Given over to idleness and wandering, his imagination sensitized by this relative freedom from work, the false security bought by a salary and all its shared values, he finds himself on a park bench as the autumn sky darkens and snow begins to fall. Before him two swans, one white, one black float slowly on a still lake. He senses someone has sat down beside him: “A small unimposing man gazing out at the water,” casually though perfectly dressed. He asks him the time. It is, as the fellow puts it, already “too late.”
The romantic cliché and deadpan response establish the mood for the events to come; a kind of blues or threnody in minor chords with subtle, frenzied overtones. “Chevauchet,” this man who quickly becomes mentor to the narrator, is an Ambassador of the Free Republic of Onirica. Without official status of any sort, yet seeking acolytes, his is a subversive position.
The reality principle has triumphed. In order to feed arch cycles of consumption and production, sleep and nocturnal dreaming have been outlawed. Wakefulness, supported by drugs, and the spectacle, a catalytic social media goliath, control the population. The eccentric, nonproductive, deeply personal world of sleep is abolished. And yet here and there in a fluid underground known or curated by Chevauchet, free spaces to sleep and dream in survive, accepting whomever finds them until the police close them down. The discovery of this clandestine world, the preservative role it offers, how it infects perception even when awake, and the fatality that unravels for the narrator within it compel the read.
In order for this kind of novel to exceed the narrative tropes that define it, a keen poetic intelligence is necessary. Our author knows this, and uses that knowledge to effect; investing the narrative with linguistic resonance rooted in associations derived from root definitions. For a scholar of humanities and social and political thought, which our author also is, this is not rare. But in the refinements that she brings to her writing, less concerned with character than the atmosphere that characters and events inspire -- a palette led by shimmering layers of chiaroscuro and the reveries attached to them -- her literary skill clarifies.
The novel, of course, is a warning of what is to come or what in large part has already come for us, its readers. Where do the opacities of sleep and the images and tales that our dreams are full of find reference in the world we inhabit? Darkness itself, the night sky of our mega cities, so scored by illumination, has lost the wonder it once held for us. 24/7 media cycles play with our passions as they absorb and create them. Self-identity, ever problematic, has entered a homologous, socially sanctioned, global commercial space that militates against psychological, cultural and linguistic difference while using them, whenever feasible, for profit. As nations struggle to sustain their politics, their economic interdependence commonly calls the shots. In these circumstances, is it possible any longer to affirm that a life altering discovery is at all attainable, despite the marketing hype that infects the phrase, making it just one more diminished hyperbole among others? That, I hope, is up to you to decide, whenever and wherever you find yourself only and excessively you. This novel is an incitement to do just that.