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Publisher: Bluejack

Fall, 2006 : Review:

Yume No Hon by Catherynne M. Valente

Yume No Hon: The Book of Dreams—​Catherynne M. Valente 0-8095-1087-1 Prime Books $27.95 2005

This short, poetic, often surrealistic novel follows Ayako, who the dust jacket tells us is an old woman in exile on a mountain in medieval Japan (it's not clear how we would know that otherwise) through a year of 72 short chapters. Each is given a heading, as the author tells us in a preliminary note, "from the Japanese calendar of the Heian period"—​names in the style of Haiku poetics, such as "The Hoopoe Descends to the Mulberry" and "Peach Blossoms Open." The jacket flap also tells us helpfully that this book more-or-less occurs in Ayako's mind, where "nothing holds a familiar shape for long. This is a map of a psyche exalted and destroyed by solitude, and on its contorted surface Shinto philosophy, Greek mathematics, Hawaiian goddesses, Egyptian legend, quantum physics, and Babylonian myth meet and merge."

In fact, we are treated to all the accumulated, eclectic baggage of an educated, widely-read 21st century mind—​Ms. Valente's, not Ayako's. Though this kind of eclecticism may be the 21st century's most common form of intellectual affectation, it's neither laziness nor a desire to show off per se that gives us references, purportedly in the mind of this medieval Japanese woman, to REM sleep, Tiamat, minotaurs, and relativistic mass. The use of these references is a conscious artistic and thematic decision, but unfortunately, one that's self-defeating.

The thematic heart of The Book of Dreams is an exploration of the nature of self at the deepest levels, and of the relationship of the fundamental, core "I" to other aspects of the self, to other people, and to the world. The extremes of Ayako's condition—​age, solitude, destitution—​have forced her back on and into herself. She has come to realize that the essential "I," the core of her self, is distinct from her body, thoughts, and dreams. Paradoxically, in reaching the most basic level of "I," she finds herself beyond personal limits, beyond normal experience, in the place where the world and body are revealed as dreams, and where the distinction self/other—​and with it, the "I" as something separate—​has disappeared.

What lies behind this idea of self-transcendence is the distinction between the phenomenal self in all its aspects—​everything that we can perceive or think, our mind, body, personality, memory—​and, at the deepest level, the noumenal self, that which, not being phenomenal, cannot be sensed or thought, but only indirectly intuited and indirectly indicated (in the terms of the phenomenal self, at any rate).

The normal locus of self is almost universally phenomenal, found physically, of course, in the body—​for most people, somewhere around the eyes—​and mentally in the running verbal commentary occurring in the mind. Since the noumenal self is not subject to thought or perception, it is most often considered by the perceiving organ of the phenomenal self, the mind, to be an opening or blank, or even nothing, a "void."

While we are, most profoundly, the noumenal self, we identify with the phenomenal self and know, for the most part, only what the mind knows. We mostly do not know the noumenal self, and the noumenal self does not know itself through the phenomenal self. When it does, and the two become one, the result is called "enlightenment."

As Walker Percy pointed out in his marvelous book, The Message in the Bottle, since the noumenal self is "nothing," literally "no thing," part of its nature is to be able to adapt itself to any phenomena, not just the mind and body; to become anyone and anything else. Once we give up attachment to our particular phenomenal self—​body, mind, personal history—​we can literally "identify" with anything.

In Yume No Hon, Ayako peers so deeply into the recesses of herself that she finds she is nothing, and she can therefore be anything—​a mountain, a river, a fire—​or any person (especially since all people share this noumenal nature), anywhere in the world or in time, including those who know about quantum theory and algebra.

The thematic point of the book's anachronisms is that any woman can be all women, or all people, that Ayako is one point on of a continuum of self shared with others, a fragment of a larger whole comprised of many individuals.

So much for the thematic level, where this all makes sense. On the textual level, the intrusions of knowledge, insights, and words from modern times remain just that, intrusions. They break the thin illusion the book presents. We know these are the words and insights of a learned 21st century Westerner, which, while ranging broadly through time and space, are in their range typical of our time and place. In short, the face of the author comes through. Thematic weight trumps artistic practice, and the result, on the textual, textural level, is displeasing, like an ingredient put into a dish solely because it's healthy, though the result is lumpy or gritty.

Besides fostering textural unpleasantness, this tactic subverts the very point it arises from. The use of anachronisms illustrates the thematic point that Ayako has transcended her phenomenal self and expanded to include Otherness, that there is no distinction between self and other. But for us, as participants in Valente's culture, this eclectic bath of information is the same-old same-old, an imposition of the author's limited, temporal self, not a release from the fictional character's. Ayako has passed beyond the boundaries of her individuality, but the book is trapped in Ms. Valente's, and we are trapped with it. For us, it would be truly "other" to be firmly in the mind and world-view of a medieval Japanese woman, without contemporary references. That is just what we don't get.

The thematic idea not only overwhelms the reality of the book, but is itself overwhelmed by its manner of presentation. Valente works in a dense, metaphoric, allusive style, often verging far from the real world. This is to her purpose; some of it works, but much does not. A besetting sin of this book is excess and affectation, especially in its use of figurative language. Too often Valente strains to be "poetic" in the trite sense of using "pretty" or exotic words, or to be original by juxtaposing elements in a way new or contrary to sense. But the real challenge in poetic writing is not to say something never said before; one can say any amount of original and barren nonsense. The real challenge is to say something never said before that is moving, inspiring, or enlightening.

Instead we get, "The sun pealed out a hundred bronze bells smattered blue by a bleeding sky," a sentence which misuses "smatter" and from which no sense can be derived, but bells are sort of poetic, after all, and so much more so when they're bronze.

Images are thrown on the page without discipline, an accumulation at times numbing. Much conveys nothing at all, such as the phrase, "dreams in their agate-toed walk." Why would dreams have agate toes? How would an agate-toed walk be different from any other walk? What is an agate, and what does it look like, for that matter? How many readers of this book will be able to visualize one? But then again, it's a "poetic" word.

At one point Ayako tells us, "within the spiced smoke I suffered my scarlet paroxysms of luminosity." That is, "I burned." It's not that this figure doesn't make sense or is beyond the pale. But the strained quality and the piling on of fancy words put the reader out of sympathy. Out of meanness, we suppose the spices in the smoke were all "poetic" spices—​vanilla, cinnamon, coriander, clove. Certainly no MSG, paprika, or dill.

There is too much referent-free and essentially barren surrealism here. As oxymoronic as it may seem for surrealism, it needs an ultimate referent, some kind of anchoring. Otherwise, it's a parade of non-realistic images tied to nothing, and reading it is like hearing a long, pointless story about people you don't know.

Yet there is also real insight, genuine emotion, and loveliness in this book. The Japanese calendar gives Valente the chapter heading, "Cicadas Begin to Sing" (pp. 71-72), from which she fashions a chapter on the cicada leaving behind its shell, an image of itself that remains while its true self moves on. This serves, of course, as a figure of the various transient versions of self—​or what we believe to be self—​left behind when our true self transcends each static form. The image isn't wildly original—​it brings to mind the chambered nautilus of the famous Holmes poem—​but doesn't need to be; nor is it recondite or difficult. By the same token, it's not labored or strange, and in context is both affecting and powerful.

A question Ayako poses, "Do the dreams possess location?" has a powerful, poetic resonance, though it's immediately spoiled by the imprecise and overly-pedantic, "Are we locative, dative, ablative?" The chapter "Barley Ripens" (pp. 60-62) gives some real insights into the meaning of death for the "I" we believe ourselves to be. The figure of the Fox, symbolizing something like death or at least transition (among other things), is handled with a supple power that is quite taking (pp. 117-118, "The Wolf Sacrifices the Beasts"). There is mostly no strain in these passages, no reaching for effect, or not enough to spoil their fundamental power. These alone make the novel interesting.

On a technical note, while the book is attractively made (though expensive for its size), it could have used more careful proofing. A single reading picked up eight errors ("to" for "too," etc.), too many for this slim a book. And even in surrealistic passages, one should not change tense in mid-paragraph.

This book's seriousness and ambition are respectable. There is matter to enjoy and admire here. The persistent reader will be rewarded by some penetrating insights, some lovely, affecting images, even some wisdom. But the reader must be persistent. The hyperintellectualizing, forced "poetic" writing, and undisciplined use of figurative language make this book slow going, and more an exercise than a treat.

Copyright © 2006, William Mingin. All Rights Reserved.

About William Mingin

Bill Mingin, a graduate of Clarion West and a member of the Garden State Horror Writers, has published 16 short stories, with more forthcoming, and approximately 170 nonfiction pieces. He currently reviews audiobooks for AudioFile Magazine. Heís married and lives in central New Jersey, where he runs a small book-export business.


Dec 12, 17:34 by IROSF
A thread to discuss Valente's novel or Bill Mingin's review.

The article can be found here.
Dec 13, 21:01 by Robert Brown
Sort of a sore spot for me, and my own writing, but why should language always be representational? The bookstores are groaning full of books that straightforwardly tell a story. Why do you want this one to be another? In fairness I haven't read the book, but your critique seems to be missing Valente's point.

I don't see anyhting wrong with changing tenses in mid-sentence, if you intentionally do so. A typo is another matter.
Dec 18, 21:39 by William Mingin
Language is generally representational by nature; it (mostly) has a referent or a purpose. "Car" has a referent; "stop that" has a purpose. Its meaning derives from these functions; meaning is the relation of word to referent (that sounds patronizingly obvious, but it's important and I don't mean it as patronizing). Outside of these functions, language is sound (or, if written, pattern). To me, for the most part, sound or pattern without referent is obscurantist or solipsistic, and either way, unless there is something really startling or magnificent about it, over time, boring.

Not to say language can't be used in other, very interesting ways, aside from strict word-to-thing one-to-one application, to indicate referents that can't be put in words, to point outside its own system. Metaphor sometimes does this; in another way, koans do.

I donít by any means say that stories should be representational; they can be whatever the author wants them to. I will then come to them and make my own judgement, and express it, with the hope that people can then make their own judgement about the work based on what I say about it. For instance, from this review, it sounds like you might want to check this book out. If I read this review, I would know I did not want to.

The distinction I'm making about "should" may seem meaningless, by the way, but to me it's important. I donít tell anyone what they should do. They can do as they wish; and I, by the same terms, can react and judge as I wish. Generally, I think things that are meaningless, or meaningless outside the mind of their own author, are, at any length past a page or so, dull.

I think you're confusing two things a bit and setting up a straw man. You seem to be setting up "writing a story in a straightforward [I'm getting the implication "dull" or "plebeian"] way" against "writing non-representational prose/ not writing in a straightforward way." You can tell a story in a way that's not straightforward, and still be writing essentially representational prose. The kind of prose I'm objecting to doesn't, generally, tell any story, or at least, not in the short term, although some arc of meaning may arise out of it.

I don't see why you say I'm missing Valente's point; I don't think writing non-representational sentences was her point. To my mind, she could have reined in a lot of that and still done the job. I think it would have been much, much harder to write about being beyond the limits of the personal self, of the physical world, of the distinction real/other, in a hard-edge, controlled way; to me, however, it would have been, or could be, much more interesting; really startling, even.

I don't know if the tense change I saw was intentional, but I suspect it wasn't. I have a problem with it, even if it's intentional, if it's so graceless and awkward that I think it's probably a typo.

Let me throw this back to you: what does non-representational prose do? If I can gather no meaning from it, what should I gather? If I can't "understand" it, why should I be interested in it? I'm not talking about the use of nonsense in short forms or even in longer forms, as in Lear or Carroll, or absurdist events in an otherwise intelligible story that also carry a resonance and sense to them; I'm talking about stuff that doesn't mean anything. What does that do? What is its purpose? How much of it do you want to read at a time? I'm a reviewer, but I'm also a consumer. How do you sell that to me?

Bill Mingin
Dec 19, 10:00 by Robert Brown
First I want to be clear that my views have no connection to Ms Valente whatsoever. I have not read her book, nor have I ever met her. I don't want her to be associated with my own views, or cause her to face consequences for my opinions. All of my points are addressed to the review, and the reviewer.

Non-representational writing is like non-representational painting in that, among other things, it expresses how the writer feels about the writing as it's being written. It's not for everyone just as non-representational painting is not for everyone. I don't mean to suggest that I find "straightforward" to be a bad word. Nor do I believe "straightforward" is the sine qua non of writing. It's a big world with big bookstores.

I said you seemed to be missing Valente's point because your review seems to boil down to: "I prefer books of type X, but this book is not of type X; therefore I didn't care for it." Your review suggested to me that Ms Valente was not attempting to write a book of type X, therefore the review seems to me to have missed her point. If my reading of your review is in error, then I apologize.
Dec 19, 21:54 by William Mingin
I did more in the review than simply say, "I don't like this kind of writing, her book is this kind of writing, therefore I didn't like the book." I gave examples of what didn't work and reasons why I think it doesn't work, and these were not limited to the writing being non-representational. I won't give examples, because they're all in the review which is, after all, at this site.

Is there anything else you like or find interesting or powerful in non-representational writing? Because "it expresses how the writer feels about the writing as it's being written" is to me not only uninteresting, but actually kind of odious, and argues a monstrous self-importance on the part of the writer, and something I am not only not interested in, but not interested with prejudice. A writer interested in conveying that sort of thing would be better off with autobiography, I think, perhaps a minute by minute description of his or her feelings. If I knew that was the subject, then I would know to avoid that particular work.

If that's your argument for that kind of writing, then I suppose we'll have to agree to disagree about it. If there's more you'd like to say, please do.

But to come back to the review: as I said, my criticisms weren't limited to that kind of writing, and I gave concrete examples with reasons for what didn't work. I had the feeling, thinking over your initial comments once again, that you came to those comments with a wounded sense of amour-propre: someone had criticised something like what you do, and you felt compelled to defend it. Rather than simply saying, "You don't seem to like this kind of writing; I do; here's why" you defended what you do in the face of my "attack" by invalidating the review as a misinterpretation. You seem to me now to be trying to do the same thing by implying that it's a one-issue review, when it isn't. At least, if you want to invalidate the review, take up some examples and show where I'm wrong.

My suggestion, however: let's not only leave Ms. Valente out of this discussion, let's leave the review out as well. We have opposing takes on non-representational writing; I'm open to hearing more about what you like about it. I read all sorts of things; I might find that something I've read and liked falls into the sphere of what you're talking about, and amend my opinions. Not everything I've ever read, after all, is right at the tip of my tongue at all times. Or I might be persuaded to be more inclusive or consider things differently. The interesting point, to me, is the discussion of a certain kind of writing, and our different takes on it.

Jun 14, 09:18 by
That is really important information


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