Cortázar for the Sleepless

I hesitate to call this found fiction, since the phrase implies inadvertency on the part of the author. What follows is a fiction that was definitely written by Dr. Ferber on purpose, one that I think succeeds as an analogy for what it’s like for a baby to fall asleep under certain circumstances and wake up under totally different ones—but it also reads to me like the sketch of a story by Cortázar. (I guess I’m thinking in particular of “House Taken Over.”)

First there’s this:

Perhaps you’ve had the experience of waking during the night just enough to notice your pillow missing. Most likely, instead of going straight back to sleep, you wakened a little more, enough to find the pillow on the floor and pull it back into bed before returning to sleep. But if you couldn’t find it right away, you probably wouldn’t be able to ignore it and go back to sleep. Instead, you’d become more fully awake so you could look around for it. If you still couldn’t find it, eventually you might turn on the light, get out of bed, and begin to search the room. […]

Ferber then goes from this realistic scenario into a more improbable, hypothetical one; “Suppose,” he writes, “that you are unable to get the pillow yourself”—and you need someone else to come and help you get it. Then he keeps elaborating on—and darkening—his analogy:

[S]uppose you discover that someone has been sneaking into your room each night and stealing your pillow. Once you know that, you might have trouble falling asleep at bedtime for fear that the pillow will be taken away as soon as you’re asleep. Whenever you catch yourself starting to drop off to sleep, you might wake yourself up again to make sure the pillow is still there.

Now imagine that this person, instead of just taking your pillow, actually moves you from your bed to another room, without waking you. Every night you go to sleep in your bed with everything just as you like it, only to wake after your first sleep cycle on, say, the floor of the living room. Unless you’re an exceptionally tolerant sleeper, you won’t even try to go back to sleep right there; you’ll get up and head back to your bedroom. But now suppose you find your bedroom door locked from the other side. Now there’s nothing you can do but wake someone who can unlock the door for you. Once that’s been done, you can at last get back into bed and get your pillow and blanket arranged properly, thereby reestablishing the conditions that were present at bedtime. Once you calm down, you will fall back asleep—but some ninety minutes later you’ll wake up again, back on the living room floor and again locked out of your bedroom.

If that happens throughout the night every night, you will not be sleeping at all well, and neither will the person who has to keep getting up to unlock your door. Soon you might be resisting sleep in hopes of identifying the person who keeps moving you; in other words, you might have trouble falling asleep even in your own bed because you know that you’ll be moved once you fall asleep. If that happened to you every night, you would not be very happy.

—pp. 65 – 66, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, Richard Ferber, M.D.; from chapter 4, “Sleep Associations: A Key Problem.”

Previous Cortázar-related posts: 1) a quote from his story “Letter to a Young Lady in Paris,” about vomiting rabbits; 2) a quote from his story “End of the World of the End,” about the death of the world by book; and 3) a quote from his Paris Review interview, which gives me hope.

I’m pretty sure that I transcribed that last quote six years ago from one of the Art of Fiction anthologies?—but the whole interview, as is wonderfully the case with all the Paris Review interviews, is now available online.

The Traces We Leave Behind

(She Blows! catch-up post, three of three.)

One last note—for now, anyway—about She Blows! And Sparm at That! I never knew my novelist great-grandfather, although my dad did; but in many parts of the novel, while reading it, I had this strange, quasi-mystical sense that I was reading something written by someone I was connected to. Maybe this is unavoidable; maybe reading fiction by an ancestor—as with reading fiction by a friend or relative, as with reading the diary of a dead person whom you knew—you’re partly, secretly, selfishly looking for mentions of you, or clues and hints of you. This kicked in very early in the book, since one of the narrator’s older brothers, for example, happens to be named Tom.

Like a lot of people do—and like a whole lot more people really ought to—I worry about the ephemerality of digital storage media. That is to say, I think a lot about things like the fact that barring a range of possible but statistically unlikely disasters, the copy of She Blows! that Emily got me on, now 84 years old (the novel was originally published in 1922, but the Riverside Bookshelf edition came out in 1926), will in all likelihood outlive all sorts of things—this Web site;; the Google Books version of the book—or at least the servers on which titles in the Google Books library currently exist; the ability of the laptop on which I’m typing these words to function; the Web as we know it; and, of course, me.

So I think it’s these two things—a search for familial clues, combined with a sense that the physical book is under threat (and that, as a consequence, democracy and civilization are under threat), combined also with the amateur genealogist’s love of the discovery of concrete documentation, or even the promise of the possibility of documentation, that make me love the last paragraph of chapter six of She Blows! For context, right before this, some of Timmy’s shipmates manage to harpoon a whale, which then takes off for the horizon, dragging their small boat behind it, faster than the main whaling ship, the Clearchus, can chase it. This is Timmy’s first whaling trip, and he’s worried about the fate of his friends, so he asks another crewmember, Aziel Wright, how the Clearchus will ever catch up; Wright replies that the whale will have to tire within twenty or so miles of running, and even though night is falling, the men on the boat have flares, so not to worry. This is what follows:

I nodded, and thanked him. There was nothing else that I knew enough to ask him, although I was still unsatisfied, and I ran below to get it all down in my journal. At the time I made mere notes, in a fragmentary way, while my impressions were fresh. I wrote up the notes later. I have that journal by me now. As I look over the scrawled and stained pages, and read the disjointed sentences, the whole thing comes back before me as if it had happened yesterday. I sent the journal home from time to time, as I had planned to do, as long as I had opportunities, and managed to carry home the part covering the last part of my cruise. My father and my mother preserved my old journal as if it were a precious thing. I found it nearly thirty years later with my father’s most valuable papers.

From pp. 60 – 61 in the Riverside Bookshelf edition, and pp. 62 – 63 in the original Houghton Mifflin, according to Google Books.

Queer Doings

(She Blows! catch-up post, two of three.)

Another thing I wrote about last November, in my first note about one of my great-grandfather’s books, the one with one of the best titles ever, was that it had inadvertent gay overtones—which, again, is not to say that men did not have sexual relationships with each other on long sea voyages, which obviously they must have (I’m sure there are other examples of this in both fiction and scholarly writing, but one great recent one that I know of is Austin Bunn’s amazing story “The Ledge,” which ran in One Story in January 2006).

But most of the sexual overtones of She Blows! have to do with the juvenile and, I think, homophobic sense of humor that sometimes seems like it’s nearly completely overtaken our culture; the way everything can be read as code for something dirty—cf. Beavis and Butthead; the persistence of Amanda Huggenkiss and her colleagues (Mike Hunt, et al.); “Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?“; etc.

In spite of my nostalgic sense that whatever we might have gained by American culture becoming one gigantic frat movie, we’ve also lost something, I still can’t help but think it’s funny that the hero of She Blows! is named Timmy Taycox, and that the older, grizzled whaling veteran on the ship who befriends Timmy is named Peter Bottom, and that the book has the occasional great paragraph like this one (to give you some context, the Annie Battles is the name of the whaler that Timmy and Peter’s ship, the Clearchus, is in constant competition with, as they circumnavigate the glove in search of pods of whales):

“Now, what do you make of that?” [Peter] cried. “They’re holding her there, and the Battles’ crew ain’t making any sort of objection that I c’n see. It’s a queer vessel and a queer crew and queer doings, and Cap’n Coffin’s the queerest of the lot, if you believe what they say of him—which I don’t. There goes Mr. Wallet over the side, and that’s queerer yet. Mebbe he thinks he can clear up the queerness, but I miss my guess if that’s what he thinks.”

From p. 152 in the Riverside Bookshelf edition, and p. 169 in the original Houghton Mifflin, according to Google Books.

My Great-Grandfather’s Place in the Canon

(She Blows! catch-up post, one of three.)

A year and a day ago, I wrote a post about my great-grandfather’s novel She Blows! And Sparm at That! One of the things I wrote was that I thought he’d had some success as a writer, but that I didn’t really know for sure; I still don’t know as much as I wish I did, but I did finally notice the Publishers’ Note in the front of the edition we have (which I finally finished reading this past summer):


It has seemed to the publishers that both the critical reception and the steady popularity of William J. Hopkins’s “She Blows! and Sparm at That!” not only justify but demand its inclusion in the Riverside Bookshelf. For this purpose it has been revised and materially shortened by the author, entirely reset in a new and larger font of type, and the illustrations by Clifford W. Ashley reproduced in full color. In this format, it is hoped, it will be more attractive to younger readers and its position as one of the great whaling classics more definitely assured.

Which makes me feel even worse about how long it took me to finally finish reading it—in a civilization-is-going-to-hell, we’re-all-doomed-by-our-own-short-attention-spans sort of way.

My current reading list—which includes titles like John Freeman’s The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox and Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, among others—isn’t helping in this regard.