What a fascinating little novel. For those who haven’t heard of it, I can’t blame you. I only came across it because of a feature in the Onion’s AV Club. (Note that the title of the article contains a significant spoiler, one that I wish I didn’t know going in.) Published in 1987, it’s the first novel by Connie Willis. It’s classified in my library as science fiction, but there are prominent historical and romantic elements as well. The basic premise is that boy, Jeff, our first-person protagonist-narrator, who is working as a research assistant for a writer who is struggling to finish a novel about the Battle of Antietam, meets girl, Annie, who is struggling with a disorder whereby she apparently relives the dreams of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in her sleep. The pair is immediately drawn to each other, and soon run away from her doctors and hide in Fredericksburg while they try to understand the meaning of the dreams. [After the jump, I go more in-depth about the book, but stop here if you plan to read the book and want to avoid spoilers. It’s got its flaws, but I definitely recommend it.]
What made the book so compelling to me was how structurally complex it ended up being, especially given its brevity. Annie filters the dreams through her own experiences, so that people in the dreams are people who she knows in her real life that are standing in for people Lee would know. This forces explicit parallels between the civil war era characters and those in the present day. At the same time, Jeff and Annie are proofing his employer’s novel, and both action and themes of the novel also parallel the present.
There’s a second recurring theme that’s woven elegantly into the novel. Jeff is forever trying to carry on conversations with things and people who can’t respond. He constantly calls in to check his messages, and will futilely talk back to the message he’s listening to. Just as futile are his attempts to converse with Annie while she’s sleepwalking through one of her dreams. Eventually, the characters even theorize that the dreams themselves are this sort of message, left by Lee on the psychic fabric of the universe, and now Annie’s stuck trying hopelessly to interpret and engage with them.
What’s so fantastic is how subtly all this complexity creeps in. Jeff’s talking at answering machines at first seems like a convenient quirk the author is using to show his thoughts. Annie tends to underemphasize the appearance of present-day people and things, while Jeff is mostly concerned with their historical analogues, so the parallels go largely uncommented on for most of the novel.
And then, once I made these connections (and aided by the Onion article), it became clear just how effectively an impending sense of dread the novel had cast upon its characters. There’s this deliciously mournful feeling of inevitable sadness and tragedy to the last third of the book.
The one major critique I have is the prose. It’s very readable, but it doesn’t sing. Willis doesn’t do a good job of selling Jeff’s attraction to Annie and vice versa. Annie herself is a total cypher for much of the book. (Granted, some of this is due to the historical/dream roles that Annie and Jeff are playing.) Conversations feel stilted and overly contrived. I can’t tell if the novel Jeff is proofing is supposed to be awful (its author is apparently successful) or if it just comes across that way.
Also, there is just a total lack of subtlety when it comes to the villain of the piece, Annie’s doctor (and Jeff’s college roommate), Richard (who, tellingly, plays General Longstreet in Annie’s dreams – the novel ascribes to the theory that Longstreet should bear most of the blame for the disaster of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg). At first it feels like Jeff develops a resentment towards Richard out of jealousy of Richard’s relationship with Annie. I had expected the novel to take the opportunity to explore Jeff’s simplistic understanding of the world and his potential unreliability as a narrator, but instead the novel goes out of its way to confirm Jeff’s worst suspicions about Richard. It feels like a missed opportunity.
Nonetheless, it was a touching, bittersweet novel, one I rushed through in two days. It helped that I had what was probably the most appropriate of reading environments for the last half of the book: sitting up late at night while my girlfriend was asleep in bed across the room, positions Jeff and Annie assume throughout the book. And now, I get the joy of finding a new author that I like, one with a significant that I now get to go through.