cover image The House of Sleep

The House of Sleep

Jonathan Coe. Knopf Publishing Group, $24 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-375-40093-3

A gloomy Victorian manor called Ashdown, perched on a precipice overlooking the English coastline like the anthropomorphic castle of a 19th-century gothic romance, is the setting for much of this engrossing and wildly inventive tale of demented scientists, obsessive desire, youthful idealism and anomie. As in Coe's previous book, The Winshaw Legacy, such gothic trappings serve a thoroughly contemporary story that traces the lives of several students who lived at Ashdown in the early 1980s. Then a university dormitory, it has since become a clinic for the study of sleep disorders run by the sadistic Dr. Gregory Dudden, a former student there. In chapters named in descending order after the clinical stages of sleep, the novel follows the strange coincidences of the summer of 1994 that re-acquaint Dudden with people from his past: Sarah, his narcoleptic college girlfriend, now a disillusioned schoolteacher living in London; Terry, an insomniac film critic under Dudden's supervision; and Terry's college friend Robert, whose long unrequited fixation with Sarah and confusion over his own gender led to a post-graduation vanishing act that is only explained in the very last chapter. In a series of plot twists and reversals as intricate as the electrodes that festoon the heads of the patients at Ashdown, the novel also manages to describe a university class polarized by the politics of the 1980s; the life and work of a fictitious Italian film director; an eponymous novel-within-a-novel about ""midnight kidnappings"" and a ""notorious criminal called the Owl""; a reminiscence of the British film industry whose footnotes are hilariously askew; and an essay interpreting the events in Sarah's life from the perspective of her Lacanian psychiatrist. Balancing self-knowing references to semiotics and psychoanalysis with elegant plot symmetries, Coe proves himself as adept an architect of sparkling, highly caffeinated fictional conceits as he is a satirist of the ambiguities of identity and the afflictions of the sleep-deprived. (Mar.)