Madeline is Sleeping Review

Madeline is Sleeping
by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

Imagine if Italo Calvino and Lewis Carroll had been able to collaborate on a book. Carroll would have contributed the parts about a dream fantasy involving a young girl in a fantastic world, and Calvino would have suffused the resulting fairy tale with postmodern sensibilities, and broken it into small, interrelated clumps. Both authors would incorporate their ability to write playful tales than can suddenly shift to lurid darkness in the space of a paragraph, a sentence, or even a few words.

If such a team had ever been formed, the result of its efforts might look much like Madeline is Sleeping. It is the story of Madeline, a little girl meandering between two worlds separated by the soap-bubble of her sleep. On one side is her family, living in a verdant French countryside and keeping vigil over the sleeping Madeline; on the other side Madeline roams, living with a troupe of gypsies which includes a woman who plays herself like a viol and a flatulent man who can imitate an amazing array of sounds.

When the story begins, Madeline is sleeping and all is well. Mother sells her rich pear and apple jams to Parisians, Madeline’s brothers and sisters lovingly care for her, and Mama and Papa’s passion rolls along without the threat of unwanted pregnancy. This
blissful world is broken by two cruel pranks: Madeline’s mother maliciously tricks an eager suitor with a gingerbread Madeline, and Madeline, in her dream world, masturbates the village idiot so that her friends will laugh at the strange expressions on his face. Mother’s punishment comes later and gradually, but Madeline’s is immediate; her
hands are thrust into boiling lye and she is sent off to live in a convent.

Soon Madeline is snatched from the convent by a band of gypsies who teach her to perform circus tricks with her now deformed paddle-hands. Madeline comes to feel at home among her fellow freaks and sends back false letters, lying to her mother about how she misses them all in the convent. But soon the gypsies find themselves trapped in a sordid life, at the mercy of a widow benefactor who makes them pose in pornographic pictures.

Madeline’s fall within her dream world is paralleled by the fall of her family: The fruit in the family’s orchard, from which Mother makes her treats, goes rotten; Madeline’s brothers and sisters grow gradually more feral; and the villagers begin to treat Madeline’s family with contempt. Perhaps intuiting a link between Madeline’s dreams and her family’s plight, Mother decides that the only way to make things better is to marry off the sleeping Madeline (whom she now considers indolent) to the village idiot.

Similarities between the two worlds emerge quietly, yet unmistakably, like secret confidences passed with the wink of an eye or a tightening of the lips. The flatulent gypsy performer, whom Madeline falls in love with, and the village idiot, lead clearly parallel, yet skewed reflections of each other, right down to their names (M. Jouy and M. Pujol). A woman named Matilde, who sprouts wings and conducts feces-smelling experiments, appears in both the dream and reality narratives, playing integral parts in each. When the characters in Madeline’s dream world relate their sad lives to each other and search for fulfillment, it becomes less and less clear in which world they lived before they joined the gypsies and in which world their stories reach their separate conclusions.

As Madeline is Sleeping rushes toward its finale, the book comes to resemble the plot-spiking intermingling of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. The dream-Madeline rushes home to correct her cruelties, yet it is unclear in which world she enacts her desperate fixes. Themes, characters, and signs seem to switch allegiance at will until the entire system of logic crafted over the book’s previous two-thirds is thrown into disarray. Despite this confusion, the ending still resounds and the finishes to each character’s tale still feel meaningful.


Madeline is Sleeping is told in a way that resembles a diary, or maybe even a blog. The book, about 250 pages, consists of roughly 200 segments (entries?) that range from one sentence to almost two pages in length. Each segment is headed with a simple title, such as “sleeping” or “resistance,” in the way a blogger might label her entries or a particularly quirky scientist her journal. Further, these segments are all self-contained. They each form discreet units, individual packets of information that never run into each other.

These discreet segments leave the links between them entirely up to the reader. Sometimes the links are obvious (as when the preceding one occurred moments before) and sometimes the links are quite tenuous, with little or no clue as to what links proximate segments. Reading each is like swimming under water–when you pop your head up to grab the next segment you sometimes find familiar territory and sometimes must acquaint yourself with a very different landscape.

This elliptical storytelling makes Madeline is Sleeping a little like the bad kids in high school that your parents warned you about hanging out with: The book encourages you to do bad things, things every “good reader” knows she shouldn’t, like jump around, create your own story, think. The storyteller is still clearly in charge, but she has less of a stranglehold than in most narratives, and part of the fun is devising an intricate series of bridges, ropes, and wires to hold the book together. Like Pale Fire this is a book that admonishes readers to employ multiple readings.

Yet, also like Pale Fire this is a book that is not so hopelessly tied up in its textual tricks that it forgets the empathy. There is love, heartbreak, and discovery, and perhaps the book’s most original contribution to these themes is the way it relentlessly approaches them from odd angles. Each segment of Madeline is Sleeping is told with a child-like wonder, deriving description via circumlocution as a child might. For example, instead of saying that Mother’s veil is moth-eaten, the narrator says:

up, up it rises, curling like smoke, until it dissolves into a great cloud of goosedown, peculiar goosedown, which, rather than slowly tumbling to the ground, darts off merrily in all directions, the thousand stitches revealing themselves as moths.

Since the central story is of Madeline’s sexual awakening and coming-of-age, this narrative tone is well-suited. However, it is valuable in another way. Use of such light, lush language blunts the book’s many perverse and violent acts. Madeline is Sleeping, carries more (and more imaginative) perversion and violence than a typical issue of Hustler, yet the book is free from the deadening weight that generally burdens such material. Instead, the disturbing parts are disarmed; they still carry a certain sort of heft, but not the kind that normally forces everything to the side in the way that the pornographic and violent normally must. The book only looses this playfully childish essence in a few moments of true violence that are rendered all the more memorable by the dreamy hue that envelops them on all sides.

Finally, there is one more benefit to the style in which Madeline is written. Much as the book’s tenuously-linked segments encourage active reading, so does the oblique writing style. The book constantly leaves the feeling of “did she just say what I thought she said?” Hint and implication do the work normally reserved for explication and “because,” making the book’s short length and facile language deceptive. It is a book that inattentive readers will underestimate, and the loss will be theirs.


The five nominees for this year’s National Book Award (of which Madeline is Sleeping is one) raised something of a furor. Many were beside themselves with anger over the NBA’s nominees. Sadly enough, this anger was not due to these books’ value as art, but rather due to their low sales, and the fact that virtually no one had read them. ‚ÄúToo far out of the mainstream‚Äù was the charge that was eagerly, yet shamefully, slung like a two-day-old turd.

I don’t know what a mainstream version of Madeline is Sleeping would look like, except that it would be stripped of much that makes it remarkable. This book does bestow many imaginative surprises like skilfully-hidden gifts, and it is written in beautiful prose. Yet for as much as it gives, Madeline demands a vigilant eye, a sensitive ear, an active mind.

The book’s gentle difficulty reminds the reader that reading is best when pursued actively, when the reader stretches her mind and creates a few gifts of her own. Madeline is thus a book that reminds us what is unique about reading, reminds us what we, as good readers, must treasure or lose.

A brief postscript. I would like to review more of the National Book Award nominees before the award is announced in mid-November, but Infinite Jest (which I have been away from for about a week) and Nanowrimo will likely preclude any further reviews until December. If someone would like to either e-mail me a review of one of the remaining four titles or post one on their own blog, I will be happy to post/link it so long as it’s a decently written review.

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A vivid review, Scott, and I especially liked the references to Calvino and Carroll. While I have not read the book, it seems as if it’s incredibly imaginative, and, as you suggest, it thereby has a lot of power.

Thanks Michael. It was definitely a very imaginative, vivid work, and I enjoyed it.

I asked a family member of mine for this book around Christmas, unaware of the sexual themes it had in it (for I am only fifteen, and my mother keeps an eye on what I read).
The book was written in a way that made even the most perverse acts seem like innocent art, which is something that most authors can not achieve. Though descriptive, it was not overbearing.
The writing style was very unique, and forced the readers to read between the lines. In my opinion, it was the perfect length for how it was written. Anymore than that may have made it seem to drag on.
It was a lovely work and an excellant read.

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