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.