Friday, June 03, 2011

Doctor Sleep by Madison Smartt Bell

Doctor Sleep, published in 1991, is a novel describing three frantic days in the life of an insomniac American expatriate, an ex-addict practicing hypnotherapy in West London. In the absence of real sleep, the protagonist, Adrian Strother, externalizes his subconscious by immersing himself in the hermeticism of Giordano Bruno. This obsession, one suspects, also acts as a substitute for the dangerous ecstasies of heroin, a habit which Adrian managed to kick a few years previously by an act of will.

While hermetic philosophy gives Adrian an inner framework for assigning a metaphysical order to the universe (and a conduit for the higher powers to which he aspires) his life on this mundane plane of existence is a bit of a shambles. His girlfriend, alienated by his restlessness and inner turmoil, has left, and he is currently suffering unwelcome intrusions into his life by acquaintances from his days on the streets, including a reformed addict named Stuart, who has found Jesus and is attempting to establish rehabilitation centers in England, and Nicole, an ex-prostitute and girlfriend of Stuart’s who beat her cruelly and who Adrian had somehow managed to marry in their wild days, although they never cohabitated and their relationship was anything but conventional. Adrian’s constant is a West Indian bartender, Terence, with whom he practices a particularly brutal form of Korean martial arts. (The punishing aspect of the martial arts sessions, the physical consequences of which – including a possible concussion - Adrian carries for the course of the novel, is clearly a form of self-punishment, or spiritual cleansing that Adrian must subject himself to for the sins of his past. It also provides him a necessary focus for his mental and physical energies.) Other essential elements of the novel are a patient of Adrian’s, an agoraphobic whose secret shame comes out in hypnotherapy, a sadistic West End crime lord, a shadowy Scotland Yard official for whom Adrian does freelance work, and a series of child rapes/murders that grace the covers of the lurid British tabloids.

The novel runs on adrenaline, following Adrian’s ceaseless transits of London during Carnival as it is celebrated by West Indian immigrants (Bell has also written a trilogy of novels set in Haiti). The narrative, it grieves me to say, drags in places, and seems largely unfocussed until we reach the last quarter or so of the novel, when the pieces begin to fall into place for a conclusion that is not, in my opinion, completely satisfying. Bell is good at showing Adrian’s increasing raggedness and mental diffusion as he drinks, gets beaten (both willingly and not), suffers hallucinations, contemplates the fate of Bruno, searches for his estranged girlfriend, gets dragged to jail and to meetings with kingpins on (ostensibly, at least) both sides of the law, performs a particularly creepy act of hypnotism, agonizes over a lethargic pet snake (in the novel’s most blatant act of kundalini symbolism), drowns a sick mouse and, over the same bathroom sink, pries the blade from a disposable razor for use as a means for himself to slip the surly bonds of earthy existence.

Doctor Sleep is an intelligent thriller, capable of sustaining interest despite its meandering flow. It was, curiously, made into a film entitled “Close Your Eyes”, with a screenplay by Bell, which seems from its description to have absolutely nothing to do with the novel other than having a hypnotist as a main character. Bell’s novel might actually have made a decent Roman Polanski film, with its arc of brutality, insomnia, and psychic disintegration.

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