DREAM SEQUENCE #35 | Lisa De Nikolits
This story is a cool and super trippy dream sequence that commands readers’ attention through its beautiful prose, idiosyncratic shifts and associations, and the overall confidence with which this piece is written: there is an urgency to the events described, even if the laws of cause and consequence are skewed by the story’s dream logic.
Here’s the thing about dreams: everyone has them, and no one’s particularly interested in hearing about yours. Even if last night’s dream was super cool and weird and totally interesting, no one (trust me: no one) is interested in having you recount the totally bizarre series of synaptic sparks that had you riding a unicorn to your grandmother’s house on the moon, or whatever the scenario may have been.
Most dreams, despite their unreal logic and visual strangeness and general what-the-fuckness, are utterly boring when recounted second hand. Moreover, literary dream narratives–which should be an easy attention-getter by dint of their surrealist wonder–are in fact extremely difficult to pull off successfully. Whether we’re talking about Louis Carroll’s wacky logic pretzels or Burroughs’s hallucinatory drug dreams, bending the rules of reality, of causation and logic, is not a sure-fire trick to boost reader interest and drive narrative. This entails a level of world-building and rule-making that I would argue make it extremely difficult to create a compelling dream narrative–one that doesn’t trivialize itself through free-associative whimsy.
Even though there’s no traditional Freytag’s Triangle sort of arc, no conventional story structure, there are definitely some clear through-lines (of character, of quasi-plot) that allow the reader to engage with the story’s movement.
Consider the story’s opening,
I am fourteen and I am standing outside the chain-link fence of a playground I never played in as a child. Or did I? The swings are the old-fashioned kind, with a plank for a seat and thick chain ropes, and the ground below is hollowed into a curve that has been worn smooth by feet wanting more.
I love this opening, because the very deliberate way in which the narrator tells us the situation communicates the unrealness of the situation.
“I am fourteen” is matter-of-fact enough, but it’s not the sort of thing a narrator typically opens with, and somehow (in my reading, at least) communicates this is a tentative situation, being fourteen. By the end of the sentence (with the de-ja-vu-ness of this playground) we get a clear sense that we’re in dream-land here. The part about “feet wanting more” is one of the loveliest bits of metaphorical imagery I’ve read in some time, by the way.
The protagonist/speaker takes us from this vaguely familiar playground and its “brutal” old-school jungle gym to a field of clover, and in the next paragraph we’re in a room (a classroom, we learn) with bearded women and a nun who throws chalk out the window. The speaker rushes out of the school to retrieve the chalk from the garden. The narrative continues as “the water rises,” a flood situation, and then her family’s there, and then her best friend (who wants to “get stoned on diet pills, everybody should know how”), and so on. The piece ends in very abstract, borderline meta-narrative territory with this wonderful passage:
I am a page being designed. … I want to shout stop it, I am so tired, make up your mind can’t you? But the designer can’t and I am made over again and again and again and all I want to do is sleep.
Which introduces (and there’s only one reference in the entire piece to this character) “the designer”–the author? the dream world itself? God?–and positions the speaker passively, like she herself is not only the dreamer but the dream, a hallucination of herself. This is a beautiful way to tie up the piece, since it interrogates the nature of the dream-story, blurring the reality of the dreamer and stabilizing the structure of the narrative into something more than a series of (albeit beautifully vivid) moments. I think most writers would have a hard time pulling off a piece like this (I know I would), and the thoroughly poetic concluding paragraph is part of the reason this one works so well.