“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.” Continue reading

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