“Bad Dreams,” by Tessa Hadley

Originally published in The New Yorker, September 23, 2013. Grade: C.

The chairs in the lounge, formidable in the dimness, seemed drawn up as if for a spectacle, waiting more attentively than if they were filled with people: the angular recliner built of black tubular steel, with lozenges of polished wood for arms; the cone-shaped wicker basket in its round wrought-iron frame; the black-painted wooden armchair with orange cushions; and the low divan covered in striped olive-green cotton. The reality of the things in the room seemed more substantial to the child than she was herself–and she wanted in a sudden passion to break something, to disrupt this world of her home, sealed in its mysterious stillness, where her bare feet made no sound on the lino or the carpets.

I’m at a loss with this story: for the first half, the objects appear to have taken over, with Hadley losings herself in lengthy descriptions of an apartment shrouded in darkness, a nine-year-old girl walking through the sleepy gauze that separates a bad dream from reality. It’s evocative, if nothing else: I found myself reminded all too well of the bad dreams I had once woken up from, of the “familiar forms” that would pop into existence as my eyes adjusted to the light–the window, the bookshelves, the bunk bed. “It was strange to stare into the room with wide-open eyes and feel the darkness yielding only the smallest bit, as if it were pressing back against her efforts to penetrate it.” As far as I can suss out, the little girl has had the dream-equivalent of an existential crisis: a gloomy epilogue has appeared in her favorite book, detailing the ways in which her beloved characters die–only the most boring of the six adventuresome, fictional children survives to a “ripe old age.” Desperate to shake things up, the girl literally upends the furniture in the living room: “She was shocked by what she’d effected, but gratified, too . . . her whole body rejoiced in the chaos.”

We never find out if this has eased the little girl’s unknowable angst; instead, the story cuts to her young mother, who slowly ambles around the house wondering if her husband is secretly repudiating her, resenting her overhead neighbors for encroaching on her idea of freedom. Like her daughter–in mind, if not in body (“Her thin freckled face was nothing like her mother’s”)–she is having a bad dream, only one that she’s awake for. As she takes in the thrown-about chairs and realizes that it is not a burglar but a deliberate message (one that she misinterprets, blaming her husband), she reassesses her life and looks for a way forward in which she will not end up at odds with the man she married, will not have to be “looking forward through a long tunnel of antagonism.” In her mind, she has the power now, for she will always have this outburst of his to secretly hold over him–like her daughter, she laughs silently to herself: she will not be boring, she will not be ordinary.

I’m stretching here: there are parallels between the mother and daughter’s sections, and Hadley’s writing is too deliberate, too clear to be the mark of a novice author fumbling around in the dark (so to speak). But the darkness obfuscates everything–perhaps intentionally, although I’m not a fan of baroque fiction–and the final section appears to be reaching some other conclusion entirely: “The child was insistent, though, that she needed to start reading it all over again, from the beginning. Her mother took the book away and chivvied her along.” In other words, as Hadley acknowledges to The New Yorker, both mother and daughter have–despite their conclusions from the night before–reverted to who they were before: perhaps the memory, secreted away, has faded (like a dream). But what does this mean? Is it perhaps that because the mother and daughter negate one another’s rebellions, they create the “bad dream” of the third act’s reality–i.e., because we forget/bury the things that terrify us, we end up falling prey to them after all?

It’s great that Hadley has managed to so vividly fictionalize a dream that has haunted her for so long; I wish only that she’d managed to do something more with the memory.

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