Chloe Benjamin, The Anatomy of Dreams
Publisher: Simon & Schuster: Atria Paperback
2014, 320 pages, hardback, $15
THE ANATOMY OF DREAMS, the debut novel from Chloe Benjamin, tells the story of Sylvie Patterson and Gabe Lennox, who meet and fall in love while at boarding school in Northern California in 1998. While at school, their enigmatic headmaster, Dr. Adrian Keller, recruits Gabe as a research assistant for a sleep study that focuses on the healing possibilities of lucid dreaming. But Sylvie and Gabe’s idyllic time at Mills doesn’t last long, and one day Gabe mysteriously leaves school never to return. Sylvie is sure she will never see Gabe again until, years later, Gabe finds Sylvie and convinces her to join Keller’s research team. Over the next six years, both Gabe and Sylvie commit themselves fully to Keller and his study, following him from California to Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, Gabe and Sylvie’s relationship faces a new hurdle: their next-door neighbors, Romanticist Thom and his wife, Janna. But as Sylvie delves deeper into the study, it comes at the cost of her relationship to Gabe. And as she continues to delve into the dream world, the real world slips further and further away.
Benjamin hits all her marks in The Anatomy of Dreams: a sweeping love story, a thriller-esque plot, a philosophical meditation on the importance of art, a mini-lecture on the science of sleep. The one element that this reader is applauding most of all is Benjamin’s sheer ambition—arguably the most exciting quality of a debut novel. Told through the first person perspective of Sylvie, the narration lets the reader fully inhabit Sylvie’s paranoia, which builds throughout the book in page-turning pleasure and an eagerness to know how the story will unravel.
If, as John Gardner writes in Becoming a Novelist, fiction should be a “vivid continuous dream,” it makes sense that a novel about sleep disorders would take a circuitous route. Though the point of telling is from Sylvie’s perspective twelve years post-Mills, the narrative jumps through time and place freely, from Sylvie and Gabe’s years at boarding school, to Sylvie’s college life at Berkeley, to Keller’s compound in Martha’s Vineyard, to the experiments at Fort Bragg and Madison, WI, respectively. Some readers may feel that the multiple timelines make the reading experience disorientating, or even frustrating. To that, I would say that I think it’s supposed to be. “Form reflects function”—the novel’s subject of disordered sleep dictates the use of a not entirely ordered narrative.
That being said, it does takes some will on the reader’s part to submit to what the book is asking. Mostly, this is because the novel hinges on a Sixth Sense-like plot twist that may not be satisfying to all readers. But as much as the novel purports to be about the secretive Keller and his sleep study, the true arc of the novel rests on something else entirely—on how Sylvie must come to terms with what has happened to her over the course of the experiment. And though The Anatomy of Dreams may also be about the “big picture” ideas of the power of dreams, and love, and art, at its center it’s really about a young girl growing up, questioning the mystery of her own life.
When I asked Benjamin what she hopes readers take away from her novel, she said,
I think what I was most interested in and what I hoped to explore was the way that
someone very normative and practical could have many layers of strangeness and
contradictions, because we all do. Because our identity—like our characters—are
complex and fluid and contradictory.
The satisfying reading experience of the novel does not rest on Keller’s mystery, but on the complicated identity of its narrator. And that’s not an element to be revealed in a plot twist. To that point, Benjamin successfully delivers on her hope for readers, which may have been presented starkly to us all along. In her dreamlike prose, in a debate about the power of dreams between Tom and Sylvie, Benjamin writes:
Tom leaned back in his chair and brought his hands together so that the fingers were
slightly bent, the pads touching, as if he were holding a large glass ball.
“It’s different,” he said. “Poets question mysteries: they observe, they stand witness, but
they don’t necessarily try to solve them…”
If you choose to read The Anatomy of Dreams solely in order to unmask the villain and unravel the mystery, you will be missing out on so much more that the novel has to offer. Benjamin questions and observes like a poet, creating in Sylvie a complex, fluid, and contradictory character.
And this reader can’t wait to see what Benjamin dreams up next.