George Orr is not well. The meek protagonist of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven abuses prescription drugs in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to stop himself from falling asleep. Orr doesn’t want to sleep because he believes that his dreams come true—that they literally alter reality—but in such a way that no one but Orr realizes that the world has changed. Orr gets caught using a “Pharmacy Card” that doesn’t belong to him, and is court-ordered to begin treatment with a sleep research psychiatrist, Dr. William Haber. Although Haber initially doesn’t believe Orr’s claim to be cursed with “effective dreams” that transform reality, he soon realizes that Orr’s dreams somehow do come true. Then, via hypnotic suggestion (and an “Augmentor” device), Haber begins wielding Orr’s gift/curse as a clumsy tool to “better” the world.
The world of The Lathe of Heaven is grim, gray, dystopian. Published in 1971 and set in Portland in the palindromic year of 2002, Le Guin’s novel is depressingly prescient. Not only does she capture the onset of seventies malaise (the ashes of hope that burned out in the sixties), she also points to a future of environmental catastrophe:
Very little light and air got down to street level; what there was was warm and full of fine rain. Rain was an old Portland tradition, but the warmth—70° F on the second of March—was modern, a result of air pollution. Urban and industrial effluvia had not been controlled soon enough to reverse the cumulative trends already at work in the mid-twentieth century; it would take several centuries for the CO2 to clear out of the air, if it ever did. New York was going to be one of the larger casualties of the Greenhouse Effect, as the polar ice kept melting and the sea kept rising…
This is also a world of urban sprawl, overpopulation, malnutrition, and total war (a clusterfuck in the Middle East, wouldn’t you know). The government is a vague and menacing presence here—vaguely totalitarian, vaguely Big Brotheresque. We learn of the “New Federal Constitution of 1984,” one of many references to Orwell’s book. (The most obvious is our passive hero’s name).
So it’s no wonder that Haber sets about to create a utopia, right? Wouldn’t you, like, try to make the world a better place if you could? Haber is repeatedly described as a “benevolent man”—Le Guin withholds the word dictator—but the central theme comes through repeatedly: Is it possible to alter reality for the greater good? Or do we simply exist in nature, a part of everything around us?
Haber’s experiments with Orr’s mind have unintended consequences. How might we, say, cure overpopulation? How about an awful plague. Orr’s “effective dreams” revise history, rewrite reality, remap consciousness. But he’s never quite able to pull off the massive tasks Haber sets for him—end racism, end war, cure the damaged ecosystem (Le Guin is extremely pessimistic on this last front). Orr is burdened with the consciousness of multiple realities, and feels deep guilt for his role in uncreation. He starts to go crazy:
“I am cracking,” he said. “You must see that. You’re a psychiatrist. Don’t you see that I’m going to pieces? Aliens from outer space attacking Earth! Look: if you ask me to dream again, what will you get? Maybe a totally insane world, the product of an insane mind. Monsters, ghosts, witches, dragons, transformations—all the stuff we carry around in us, all the horrors of childhood, the night fears, the nightmares. How can you keep all that from getting loose? I can’t stop it. I’m not in control!”
Daydream, which is to thought as the nebula is to the star, borders on sleep, and is concerned with it as its frontier. An atmosphere inhabited by living transparencies: there’s a beginning of the unknown. But beyond it the Possible opens out, immense. Other beings, other facts, are there. No supernaturalism, only the occult continuation of infinite nature … Sleep is in contact with the Possible, which we also call the improbable. The world of the night is a world. Night, as night, is a universe … The dark things of the unknown world become neighbors of man, whether by true communication or by a visionary enlargement of the distances of the abyss … and the sleeper, not quite seeing, not quite unconscious, glimpses the strange animalities, weird vegetations, terrible or radiant pallors, ghosts, masks, figures, hydras, confusions, moonless moonlights, obscure unmakings of miracle, growths and vanishings within a murky depth, shapes floating in shadow, the whole mystery which we call Dreaming, and which is nothing other than the approach of an invisible reality. The dream is the aquarium of Night.
— VICTOR HUGO, LES TRAVAILLEURS DE LA MER
The Hugo citation comes from Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven—Le Guin uses it as a preface to the seventh chapter. It’s beautiful on its own; it also functions as a kind of poetic summary of The Lathe of Heaven.
Quantin followed the procession for a few minutes out of morbid curiosity. The choice of narrower side streets, where it was easier to enlist the wall’s support, was probably deliberate, he thought, but then a long notice stuck to the stone exactly at eye level arrested his attention and, with it, his progress. The notice—in the manner of a proper, not overly pushy advertisement—listed the advantages ofso-called heavy dreams. Having come across the subject once before, Quantin read the fine print carefully, line by line: “The main advantage of the heavy industry of nightmares over the light industry of golden threads plunged into brain fibrils, over the production of so-called sweet dreams, is that in marketing our nightmares we can guarantee that they will come true, we can hand our customers ‘turnkey dreams.’ Sweet dreams cannot withstand reality, sleepy reveries wear out faster than socks; whereas a heavy dream, a simple but well-made nightmare, is easily assimilated by life. Where dreams unburdened by anything disappear like drops of water in the sand, dreams containing a certain harshness will, as they evaporate in the sun, leave a hard kernel on the roof of Plato’s famous cave: these dposits will collect and accrue, eventually forming a swordlike stalactite.
“Speaking in more modern terms,” the fine print went on, “our nightmares, weighing as they do on the brain, gradually form a sort of moral ceiling that is always about to come crashing down on one’s head: some of our customer’s call this ‘world history.’ But that’s not the point. The point is the durability, unwakeability, high depressiveness, and wide availability of our nightmares: mass-market products good for all eras and classes, nighttime and daytime, moonlight and sunlight, closed eyes and open.”
From Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s short story “The Branch Line,” collected in NYRB’s Memories of the Future (translation by Joanne Turnbull).
Raskolnikov had a fearful dream. He dreamt he was back in his childhood in the little town of his birth. He was a child about seven years old, walking into the country with his father on the evening of a holiday. It was a grey and heavy day, the country was exactly as he remembered it; indeed he recalled it far more vividly in his dream than he had done in memory. The little town stood on a level flat as bare as the hand, not even a willow near it; only in the far distance, a copse lay, a dark blur on the very edge of the horizon. A few paces beyond the last market garden stood a tavern, a big tavern, which had always aroused in him a feeling of aversion, even of fear, when he walked by it with his father. There was always a crowd there, always shouting, laughter and abuse, hideous hoarse singing and often fighting. Drunken and horrible-looking figures were hanging about the tavern. He used to cling close to his father, trembling all over when he met them. Near the tavern the road became a dusty track, the dust of which was always black. It was a winding road, and about a hundred paces further on, it turned to the right to the graveyard. In the middle of the graveyard stood a stone church with a green cupola where he used to go to mass two or three times a year with his father and mother, when a service was held in memory of his grandmother, who had long been dead, and whom he had never seen. On these occasions they used to take on a white dish tied up in a table napkin a special sort of rice pudding with raisins stuck in it in the shape of a cross. He loved that church, the old-fashioned, unadorned ikons and the old priest with the shaking head. Near his grandmother’s grave, which was marked by a stone, was the little grave of his younger brother who had died at six months old. He did not remember him at all, but he had been told about his little brother, and whenever he visited the graveyard he used religiously and reverently to cross himself and to bow down and kiss the little grave. And now he dreamt that he was walking with his father past the tavern on the way to the graveyard; he was holding his father’s hand and looking with dread at the tavern. A peculiar circumstance attracted his attention: there seemed to be some kind of festivity going on, there were crowds of gaily dressed townspeople, peasant women, their husbands, and riff-raff of all sorts, all singing and all more or less drunk. Near the entrance of the tavern stood a cart, but a strange cart. It was one of those big carts usually drawn by heavy cart-horses and laden with casks of wine or other heavy goods. He always liked looking at those great cart-horses, with their long manes, thick legs, and slow even pace, drawing along a perfect mountain with no appearance of effort, as though it were easier going with a load than without it. But now, strange to say, in the shafts of such a cart he saw a thin little sorrel beast, one of those peasants’ nags which he had often seen straining their utmost under a heavy load of wood or hay, especially when the wheels were stuck in the mud or in a rut. And the peasants would beat them so cruelly, sometimes even about the nose and eyes, and he felt so sorry, so sorry for them that he almost cried, and his mother always used to take him away from the window. All of a sudden there was a great uproar of shouting, singing and the balalaïka, and from the tavern a number of big and very drunken peasants came out, wearing red and blue shirts and coats thrown over their shoulders.
“Get in, get in!” shouted one of them, a young thick-necked peasant with a fleshy face red as a carrot. “I’ll take you all, get in!”
But at once there was an outbreak of laughter and exclamations in the crowd.
“Take us all with a beast like that!”
“Why, Mikolka, are you crazy to put a nag like that in such a cart?”
“And this mare is twenty if she is a day, mates!”
“Get in, I’ll take you all,” Mikolka shouted again, leaping first into the cart, seizing the reins and standing straight up in front. “The bay has gone with Matvey,” he shouted from the cart—”and this brute, mates, is just breaking my heart, I feel as if I could kill her. She’s just eating her head off. Get in, I tell you! I’ll make her gallop! She’ll gallop!” and he picked up the whip, preparing himself with relish to flog the little mare.
“Get in! Come along!” The crowd laughed. “D’you hear, she’ll gallop!”
“Gallop indeed! She has not had a gallop in her for the last ten years!”
“She’ll jog along!”
“Don’t you mind her, mates, bring a whip each of you, get ready!”
“All right! Give it to her!”
They all clambered into Mikolka’s cart, laughing and making jokes. Six men got in and there was still room for more. They hauled in a fat, rosy-cheeked woman. She was dressed in red cotton, in a pointed, beaded headdress and thick leather shoes; she was cracking nuts and laughing. The crowd round them was laughing too and indeed, how could they help laughing? That wretched nag was to drag all the cartload of them at a gallop! Two young fellows in the cart were just getting whips ready to help Mikolka. With the cry of “now,” the mare tugged with all her might, but far from galloping, could scarcely move forward; she struggled with her legs, gasping and shrinking from the blows of the three whips which were showered upon her like hail. The laughter in the cart and in the crowd was redoubled, but Mikolka flew into a rage and furiously thrashed the mare, as though he supposed she really could gallop.
“Let me get in, too, mates,” shouted a young man in the crowd whose appetite was aroused.
“Get in, all get in,” cried Mikolka, “she will draw you all. I’ll beat her to death!” And he thrashed and thrashed at the mare, beside himself with fury.
“Father, father,” he cried, “father, what are they doing? Father, they are beating the poor horse!”
“Come along, come along!” said his father. “They are drunken and foolish, they are in fun; come away, don’t look!” and he tried to draw him away, but he tore himself away from his hand, and, beside himself with horror, ran to the horse. The poor beast was in a bad way. She was gasping, standing still, then tugging again and almost falling.
“Beat her to death,” cried Mikolka, “it’s come to that. I’ll do for her!”
“What are you about, are you a Christian, you devil?” shouted an old man in the crowd.
“Did anyone ever see the like? A wretched nag like that pulling such a cartload,” said another.
“You’ll kill her,” shouted the third.
“Don’t meddle! It’s my property, I’ll do what I choose. Get in, more of you! Get in, all of you! I will have her go at a gallop!…”
All at once laughter broke into a roar and covered everything: the mare, roused by the shower of blows, began feebly kicking. Even the old man could not help smiling. To think of a wretched little beast like that trying to kick!
Two lads in the crowd snatched up whips and ran to the mare to beat her about the ribs. One ran each side.
“Hit her in the face, in the eyes, in the eyes,” cried Mikolka.
“Give us a song, mates,” shouted someone in the cart and everyone in the cart joined in a riotous song, jingling a tambourine and whistling. The woman went on cracking nuts and laughing.
… He ran beside the mare, ran in front of her, saw her being whipped across the eyes, right in the eyes! He was crying, he felt choking, his tears were streaming. One of the men gave him a cut with the whip across the face, he did not feel it. Wringing his hands and screaming, he rushed up to the grey-headed old man with the grey beard, who was shaking his head in disapproval. One woman seized him by the hand and would have taken him away, but he tore himself from her and ran back to the mare. She was almost at the last gasp, but began kicking once more.
“I’ll teach you to kick,” Mikolka shouted ferociously. He threw down the whip, bent forward and picked up from the bottom of the cart a long, thick shaft, he took hold of one end with both hands and with an effort brandished it over the mare.
“He’ll crush her,” was shouted round him. “He’ll kill her!”
“It’s my property,” shouted Mikolka and brought the shaft down with a swinging blow. There was a sound of a heavy thud.
“Thrash her, thrash her! Why have you stopped?” shouted voices in the crowd.
And Mikolka swung the shaft a second time and it fell a second time on the spine of the luckless mare. She sank back on her haunches, but lurched forward and tugged forward with all her force, tugged first on one side and then on the other, trying to move the cart. But the six whips were attacking her in all directions, and the shaft was raised again and fell upon her a third time, then a fourth, with heavy measured blows. Mikolka was in a fury that he could not kill her at one blow.
“She’s a tough one,” was shouted in the crowd.
“She’ll fall in a minute, mates, there will soon be an end of her,” said an admiring spectator in the crowd.
“Fetch an axe to her! Finish her off,” shouted a third.
“I’ll show you! Stand off,” Mikolka screamed frantically; he threw down the shaft, stooped down in the cart and picked up an iron crowbar. “Look out,” he shouted, and with all his might he dealt a stunning blow at the poor mare. The blow fell; the mare staggered, sank back, tried to pull, but the bar fell again with a swinging blow on her back and she fell on the ground like a log.
“Finish her off,” shouted Mikolka and he leapt beside himself, out of the cart. Several young men, also flushed with drink, seized anything they could come across—whips, sticks, poles, and ran to the dying mare. Mikolka stood on one side and began dealing random blows with the crowbar. The mare stretched out her head, drew a long breath and died.
“You butchered her,” someone shouted in the crowd.
“Why wouldn’t she gallop then?”
“My property!” shouted Mikolka, with bloodshot eyes, brandishing the bar in his hands. He stood as though regretting that he had nothing more to beat.
“No mistake about it, you are not a Christian,” many voices were shouting in the crowd.
But the poor boy, beside himself, made his way, screaming, through the crowd to the sorrel nag, put his arms round her bleeding dead head and kissed it, kissed the eyes and kissed the lips…. Then he jumped up and flew in a frenzy with his little fists out at Mikolka. At that instant his father, who had been running after him, snatched him up and carried him out of the crowd.
“Come along, come! Let us go home,” he said to him.
“Father! Why did they… kill… the poor horse!” he sobbed, but his voice broke and the words came in shrieks from his panting chest.
“They are drunk…. They are brutal… it’s not our business!” said his father. He put his arms round his father but he felt choked, choked. He tried to draw a breath, to cry out—and woke up.
He waked up, gasping for breath, his hair soaked with perspiration, and stood up in terror.
—From Chapter V of Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment
A few weeks ago on this blog, I declared Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams a perfect novella, a claim that I feel even more certain about after listening to Macmillan audio’s new production of the book, read by Will Patton.
Precise, funny, and moving, Train Dreams tells the story of Robert Grainier, a laborer (and eventual hermit of sorts) who makes a life in (and against) the strange wilderness of the Idaho panhandle. The book somehow measures the first half of the twentieth century in the US without overreaching; instead, through Grainier’s human (but anti-social) presence, Johnson traces the end of Manifest Destiny, the last strands of the wild frontier. Train Dreams, poised tautly on a line that divides the mythic and metaphysical from the concrete and real, shows us a world where we might catch a glimpse of wolf-children and angels—the real thing, not just the sham show, not just a pale suggestion.
Moving through the book again via Patton’s expert narration, I was struck by how constructed yet seamless Johnson’s narrative is. Johnson gets so much credit for the precision of his syntax, but a rereading of Train Dreams reveals how tight and layered, yet never obvious, his plot is—how he lays out his themes repeatedly without brazenly calling attention to them. (One of the joys of reading is rereading; one of the joys of a novella is that its brevity allows us to easily reread). The book is a gem.
Will Patton’s reading perfectly matches the tone, pacing, and depth of Train Dreams. He understands the restraint of Johnson’s prose, never tripping over into bombast or ghastly over-emoting. Patton’s wry, not-quite-dusty, not-quite-dulcet tone brings Johnson’s small cast to vivid life. In particular, he breathes energy into the humorous dialogues. I found myself laughing aloud over a discourse between Grainier and a man who’s been shot by his own dog. Patton understands the material and brings the same sensitivity, pathos, and wit to it that he brought to his reading of Johnson’s 2007 opus, Tree of Smoke.
A good reader makes all the difference of course. In the wrong hands—excuse me, wrong voice–—a book we thought we knew can come across stifled, squashed; the reader can actually hurt the book, impose the wrong tone: misread. A reader like Patton (and I should credit his director and production team too, of course) can enlarge a book for its audience, shining light on the subtle nuances we might overlook, or even clouding phrases we thought we fully understood, empowering the language with a new ambiguity that enriches the overall reading experience. Highly recommended.
Here’s Patton reading the first part of Train Dreams:
A favorite scene from a beautiful film.
Beautiful scene from a beautiful film.