I'll start with the caveat and then move on to an explanation of why this earns a place on my "favorites" shelf, which I limit to books that combine wI'll start with the caveat and then move on to an explanation of why this earns a place on my "favorites" shelf, which I limit to books that combine writing excellence, depth and personal impact. Baldwin, Adrienne Rich, Leslie Silko, Ulysses...the true A list.
But there is a caveat. O'Brien's Sixties are white and privileged: he writes (consciously) from the perspective of middle-to-upper-middle class youth, with a masculine tilt. There are no black characters, no Vietnam vets, and women are present in angular relationship to the center of the stories.
Most of the time, those elements would seriously compromise my sense of a book's quality, and there's a small voice in the back of my head whispering that I shouldn't be giving Dream Time quite as strong a recommendation as I am. And there's a possibility that O'Brien's real audience consists of people who share some/most of his "identity" characteristics. But I don't think so and I'll move on to explaining why.
Like Rich's poetry and Baldwin's prose, Dream Time knows precisely where it's coming from and is deeply aware of the complications we use the superficialities of "identity" to veil and evade. It's a jazz book, one dedicated to testing phrasings, exploring the ways internal states of being freeze, thaw, melt, are exploded by the changes in the external world, re-form, dissolve again, grasp on to phrasings as life rafts that have already begun to sink by the time we've located them. On a sentence by sentence basis, the book is stunning. O'Brien frequently writes a paragraph, half-paragraph, sometimes only a phrase, from a perspective firmly committed to a "truth" which the next phrase or paragraph refracts into a new configuration. As I read I found myself repeatedly wondering how he took us from point A--maybe a commitment to revolution as envisioned by Che or the lure of James Bond fashion or a shared moment of sexual ecstasy--to point B, from which the first moment appears to have been pure delusion or willed innocence. Been a while since I've fallen so firmly under the sway of an unfamiliar writing style. O'Brien's written eloquently about jazz, so I suspect he understands the style in precisely those terms, but it doesn't really matter. The impact is immediate, visceral and its implications are absolutely opposed to abstraction and generalization.
And that's precisely what, at their best, the Sixties were about: constant questioning and evolution. But also profound disillusionment. The structure of the book follows, inevitably I'm afraid, a tragic arc, or maybe a tragicomic arc. But that's not quite right because it requires accepting the late beat, affluent nuclear nightmare of the early 60s as a desirable state of being, a mistake O'Brien's far too sharp to make. Each chapter takes on a different state of (mostly white, male-centered, economically shielded) being, takes apart its contradictions, insecurities,while recognizing the spiritual and political visions that can't be dismissed with a glib ironic " critique."
Not sure how clearly Dream Time will communicate with those who don't follow the allusions--"you had to be there, man"? There's a bit less music than in my memory of the time, a bit more film, a lot more NYC "high culture" (I should probably add region to the list of "limitations"--the Sixties meant something way different in the Rocky Mountain Time Zone than they did in the Ivy League sphere. But at the end, none of that mattered much to me. I had a specific location that conditioned my sense of the sixties; so did everyone else who lived through the time. What I'm sure of is that O'Brien has provided one of the clearest pictures I've seen of how the Sixties felt.
When you're done, read Baldwin's Another Country, Rich's Leaflets, Leroi Jones' Dead Lecturer, Denise Levertov, Gwendolyn Brooks...listen to Dylan and Aretha and Coltrane and Nina Simone.....But keep Dream Time in the mix....more