Monday, May 19, 2014

Monday Muse Reads 'A Kind of Dream'

Cover of A Kind of Dream

If, as Shakespeare wrote in "Rape of Lucrece", "Thoughts are but dreams", we might count ourselves especially lucky to read the thoughts that Kelly Cherry has written down in A Kind of Dream: Stories (Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press, 2014). In her latest book of fiction, Cherry shows us through the experiences of five generations of a Madison, Wisconsin, family "such stuff / As dreams are made on" (Prospero in Tempest) — birth, growing up, love, sex, marriage, parenthood and family — and denied — failure, violence, loss, death. That last theme, death, is a continuous thread in the novel, steadily unreeled, imagined and not, connecting (because of its inevitability) all generations past, present, and future. 

Though part of a trilogy (the other two novels-in-stories are Cherry's My Life and Dr. Joyce Brothers, published in 1990, and The Society of Friends, issued in 1999), A Kind of Dream stands solidly on its own. As the last book in the trilogy, it also echoes that earlier mentioned theme of all things coming to their end in due time.

The arrangement of the wittily titled, interrelated stories begins with an inventive prologue that introduces us to family members in the style of dictionary entries (with abbreviated grammatical descriptors: n. for noun, Compound subj. for compound subject, adj. for adjective, abbr. for abbreviation, etym. for etymology, etc.) and closes with an epilogue in which dogs, and in particular the small dog Virgil (note his name), offer a beautiful view of eternity. The cohesive narrative moves swiftly along as each family member's story, or some piece of that story, is told. The shifting perspectives of the stories together reveal a vision of life as it can be lived in its biggest, smallest, most intimate, and most vulnerable moments, at beginnings, middles, and ends. The endings, notably, are bittersweet; while they can be and are mourned, they also become occasions for taking stock of and acknowledging all that was hoped for and can be celebrated: the work of art that is life itself.

The principal characters are Nina, a writer (and more); Nina's husband Palmer, a historian; Nina's adopted daughter Tavy, a 20-something painter and the unwed mother of Callie, a wise child with musical talent; and BB, Nina's niece who is an actress and the mother of Tavy, and BB's husband, the filmmaker Roy, who are in Mongolia making a movie. These characters are vividly realized, multi-dimensional, invested with dialogue, actions, ups and downs, and especially emotions that are true-to-life. They have a down-to-earth straightforwardness that allows room for growth without the constraint of sentimentality.

I found in A Kind of Dream many things to like, apart from apt characterizations and multiple perspectives. Perhaps because she is a poet, Cherry writes with a wonderful economy that propels the storytelling. In the "Prologue: On Familiar Terms", for example, Cherry's use of many short sentences to "define" her characters is entirely appropriate to the lexicon she's crafted. Cherry "gets" women and their relationships, and writes of them in ways tender and frank. She includes cultural and literary allusions and makes use of double meanings and plays on words or phrases (e.g., "Shooting Star", "The Only News That Matters") that demonstrate her considerable wit and facility with words. She can surprise, drawing you in and setting you up for an ending you don't necessarily expect, as in "Story Hour". She is lyrical — "From her kitchen window she saw the bare limbs of the lilac pulling on long gloves of snow." ("Faith, Hope, and Clarity", a tour-de-force chapter) — and often funny — "Larry did not get up. When your second ex-wife tells you she thinks of you as roadkill, you do not get up." ("Story Hour").

And, as are Shakespeare's plays, Kelly's A Kind of Dream is more than the sum of its stories. By its end, I came to think of the book as a metaphor for ideas, creativity, and the endurance of the artistic life and the work we aim to leave behind. If we're lucky, inspiration overrides our fits and starts and ultimately shows us a way to make real what we only imagine. What can seem like a dream — not wholly explicable, frequently fraught, always interpretable, changeable over time — is engaging the idea at its source. That can be hard work; it takes passion to see a dream to its end, to make it into something, and an uncommon willingness to let it go once you're beyond it.

. . . when you've learned to see what's in front of you and you decide to paint it, the world rushes in on you. I imagine a newborn feels like this, inundated, confused, and frightened. Shapes, colors, composition, perspective fly toward you like a flock of birds. . . It's not easy just to stay standing and keep looking. And then you realize that what you thought was an assault has become an embrace; the painting-to-be surrounds you, and you are in a place of enormous possibility. This is what it is like to make art. Of any kind, I'm sure of that. . . . (Tavy in "The Autobiography of My Mother(s)" in A Kind of Dream)

I don't say of many works of fiction that I dream of spending more time with them but I have the feeling that A Kind of Dream could make for a particularly rich second reading.

Kelly Cherry first came to my attention when she was appointed Virginia's state poet. I wrote a profile of her (read my Monday Muse post of January 24, 2011), later interviewed her (read my post of May 16, 2012), and eventually reviewed her ninth chapbook Vectors (read my post of February 4, 2013). It was inevitable, it seems, that I migrated to her fiction. 

A prolific and award-winning writer, Kelly has published more than 30 books, not only chapbooks and full collections of poetry but also other novels and short stories, nonfiction (an autobiography and books on writing), and translations of classical drama.  

1 comment:

Britton Swingler said...

Such a thoughtful and sincere review. You have a talent, Maureen, for seeing and describing clearly; what I would call an exact ease, a way of telling that is at once informative yet enjoyable to read.