Sleepless Nights — Elizabeth Hardwick

Sleepless Nights isn’t much good for sleepless nights because it’s not somnolent, and yet it also isn’t engaging. Rather, it’s a jagged and random novelette that so leaps from idea to idea and style to style as to make me roll my eyes and give up. It is a novel only in that it departs least from that form, but, unlike In Search of Lost Time, which has been described the same way, Sleepless Nights is irredeemably irritating. Nothing in it hangs together, and it is like a cruel parody of modernism without the levity of satire to make up for its deficiencies. With it I’m tempted to play the Derrida parlour game.

For those of you unfamiliar with it, the game goes like this: take one of Derrida’s convoluted sentences and negate it, such that the sentence says the opposite of what it once did. Read or give both sentences to someone else, ideally an expert in Derrida, and ask them to decide which he wrote. I once tried to play this with a literary theory professor, who didn’t like the game. The same game could be played here too: does Hardwick say, “Nothing groans under treachery,” or,”Everything groans under treachery?” Does she say, “Real people: nothing like your mother and father, nothing like those friends from long ago […]” or “Real people: everything like your mother and father, everything like those friends from long ago […]”? Does she say, “The weak have the purest sense of history,” or “The strong have the purest sense of history?” Either could be true, with no change in the narrative or outcome, if you can call what happens “outcome.”

Then there is fuzzy language of the sort B.R. Myers hates; I have yet to see “acrimonious twilight [fall].” And do the weak have the purest sense of history, which the narrator (also named Elizabeth) posits? Maybe: but if so, this novel doesn’t prove it, or even do more than state it and move on. It also goes for the obvious and tautological in the place of the profound: “It was what she was always doing, and in the end what she had done.” Yes, the present becomes the future and we’ve eventually done whatever it is that we’re doing. This would seem obvious, and I wouldn’t note it if it were somehow connected to the rest of this disjointed narrative.

Nothing connects and little happens, which Geoffrey O’Brien excuses in the introduction: “The norms of fiction, the reader of Sleepless Nights might well conclude, are after all a constriction, or at least a superfluity: Since to live is to make fiction, what need to disguise the world as another, alternate one?” There is much to be said about challenging the norms of fiction, but this book doesn’t: it wanders and meanders into nothing. And what O’Brien means by saying “to live is to make fiction” he never explains, and the only way to make living a fiction is to stretch fiction beyond whatever bounds it might have into something so unrecognizable that it covers all things and thus loses the specificity that make it a definitive concept in the first place.

This is, he says, “a novel that could allow itself to move in any direction in time that it chose, that could shift its attention from one person or situation to another as abruptly as a filmmaker might splice together two incongruous images; a novel that seem[s] to declare the impossibility of separating itself from life […]”. Even if a novel can move in any direction and through any time, perhaps the fact that it can doesn’t mean it should, as Sleepless Nights demonstrates. And all this double-talk is merely from the first page of O’Brien’s introduction. Compare O’Brien’s facile dismissal of “the norms of fiction” to what David Lodge says of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose: “The process [of placing the novel in a historical period, which Lodge explains] demonstrates an interesting aspect of the composition of fiction, namely, that the acceptance of a constraint which may seem frustrating and bothersome at first often leads to the discovery of new ideas and story-stuff.” It doesn’t appear that Hardwick had any problem using constraints to discover new ideas and story-stuff, since Sleepless Nights has little of either.

To be fair, in the introduction O’Brien is describing what will come more than anything else, and it is not his description so much as his defense that I attack. And I attack it all the more because a few passages ring: “Every great city is a Lourdes where you hope to throw off your crutches but meanwhile must stumble along on them, hobbling under the protection of the shrine.” In this context, the passage is vulnerable to the Derrida parlour game, but it could be something more. Alas: amid the random thoughts, incomplete sentences, and even more random shifts in place, perspective, and the like, it is adrift, cut off from its network and lost amid the vicissitudes of a book with no spine.

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