It’s experimental in nature. The author, J.R. Crook, stated in an interview with his publisher that “the most obvious influence on Sleeping Patterns was probably Roland Barthes’s (in)famous essay ‘The Death of the Author,’ together with the related thoughts of Foucault.” He also listed Sartre, Calvino, Joyce, Musil and Pessoa as influences.
So you won’t be surprised when I tell you that Sleeping Patterns is a far from straightforward narrative. The games begin, in fact, in the dedication, “to the memory of the author”. The introduction is written by one of the characters in the book, Annelie Strandli, and she explains that J.R. Crook is dead and she’s put the book together out of 15 stories sent to her by post.
In fact, J.R. Crook is alive and well – I saw him receive the prize and the large cheque for the Luke Bitmead Bursary last year, and chatted with him briefly afterwards. So the dedication is part of the fiction, and presumably a nod to the Barthes essay mentioned earlier. (If you’re interested, by the way, the essay is available online here. The point appears to be that the author is divorced from the text at the moment of its creation, and it becomes the property of readers. It is readers who create meaning in the text, and critics’ traditional role of seeking authorial intention is pointless.)
The 15 stories were sent to Annelie out of order, and she’s preserved that order in the book, while numbering the chapters to show their “true” order. So we begin with chapter 5, then go to chapter 1, then chapter 11, and so on. The story, such as it is, tells of the strange relationship between Annelie and Berry Walker, a writer who lives in the same student residence in south London, as does Jamie Crook. Annelie tries to understand the enigmatic Berry by sneaking into his room and reading stories that he leaves in his desk drawer.
The twist at the end is very clever and ties things together beautifully. I won’t divulge it here for those who are interested in reading the book, but it’s one of those good twists that throws a new light on what was really happening in the book while being completely credible. It’s unexpected, but when you read it you feel as if you should have expected it. It’s also, as you’d expect, tied up with the questions of authorship and interpretation of texts that so fascinate J.R. Crook (the real one, not the character in the book).
Sleeping Patterns is a ‘minimalist’ book. Well, OK, it’s short. Just 108 pages, and that’s with some pretty generous white space. But the length feels about right for this book. The story of Berry and Annelie is not in itself particularly compelling, and the writing style creates a distance between the reader and the characters. At no point did I experience the illusion that I had really entered the world of the characters. It wasn’t that the characters were not believable or well-drawn; it was more that the disjointed narrative and the appearances of the author kept reminding me that I was reading a work of fiction. Because of this distance, I think the work might have failed to sustain my interest for 400 pages. As clever and well-constructed as the literary puzzle was, it was still a literary puzzle, and such things are best kept brief. 108 pages felt about right.
Overall, I’d definitely recommend this as a good, thought-provoking read. Although it’s quite a complex book, and despite the somewhat heavy list of influences, it’s not a difficult read. It’s the kind of book where the more you put into it, the more you’ll get out. But you don’t need a PhD in cultural studies to enjoy it. It’s a book that speaks to the intellect rather than the emotions, and as such it will appeal to some but not others.
If this sounds like your kind of thing, here are a few links to other books I’ve reviewed that you might enjoy:
- Milan Kundera: Identity
- Tom McCarthy: C
- Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities, t zero, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Mr Palomar
- Aleksandar Hemon: The Question of Bruno
- Alois Hotschnig: Maybe This Time