A cerebral PsyFi thriller that will break your heart and then set it free. Think Chuck Palahniuk with soul, supernatural Don DeLillo, occult Murakami, edgy Atwood.-At an exquisite mansion perched on an edenic plateau, twenty-some guests are remembering their dreams as clearly as yesterday. All that's required is to let an eccentric guru called the Diving Man work their subconscious like a snake-charmer. Parts Willy Wonka, Judge Holden, and Tim Leary, he seems to know what can't be known, professes a bizarre philosophy, and spends his days leaping from the cliffs to hold his breath for minutes on end in the churning river below. He is also plotting against the dissolution of the world.The House draws Lynn, an anxious, earnest therapist who foresaw her fiancé's death in a dream. . .or, just maybe, called it into being. This is her last chance to heal, but only if she can come to terms with her dark connection to another seeker—the young logophile Daniel, who is afflicted with a strange disease inextricable from an even stranger gift.
House of Sleep has stuck with me in so many ways, it's hard to know where to begin. I'll start by saying this is one of the most beautifully written novels I've read in the past year, in any genre. It's a story about loss, frailty, alienation, dream symbolism, depth psychology, shamanism, psychedelics, self-transcendence, cosmic awe, and the objective weirdness of the Happy Meal (among other things).
The core narrative follows Lynn, a bereaved woman who's tried and failed at every known form of grief therapy. A parallel narrative follows Daniel, a young man who flees his luddite father's farm in search of his runaway brother in the big city. Lynn's and Daniel's fates intertwine at the titular House, where a group of "Sleepers" practice the art of dreaming one another's dreams — a skill which their leader, the enigmatic Diving Man, claims to have acquired through years of classified CIA training and transgressive shamanism. But as Lynn and Daniel deduce the House's true purpose, their idyllic dream-world begins to unravel...
That summary, intriguing as I hope it is, doesn't begin to do justice to the humanness of Brad Kelly's characters, the nuanced realism of his dialogue, the depth and scope of his worldbuilding; or the poetry of his prose, which had me bookmarking passages just for the sheer pleasure of rereading them. You have every right to disbelieve me when I compare Kelly to McCarthy and Melville... but that doesn't make the statement any less true.
House of Sleep earns every cover-blurb adjective: it is "witty," "erudite," "heartfelt," "original," "insightful," "mind-bending" and "ambitious." More importantly, this book is very hard to put down. I recommend it to all intrepid explorers of consciousness, and to any reader who relishes the surprises of a genre-bending psy-fi narrative.
I began reading the House of Sleep numerous times. I would only make it past the first few chapters and the reality of my own grief would set in as the character’s process of loss resonated much too closely to that of my own at the time. Most recently, upon opening the book, I had JUST purchased new watercolors in one of my last ditch efforts of escapism and then set out to start over, each chapter, one more time. House of Sleep made me feel as if we have a sort of default setting triggered within our dna with specific steps to take after Life’s merciless despair hacks into the very core of our existence. A complete factory reset of our internal hard-drive. Brad captures this in such a profound way-allowing me to: break, relate, and heal all within the bindings of this remarkable novel. The depth of character, which only Brad Kelly can create, never fails to invoke a profound thought process for the reader. Enabling one to empathize with the character’s suffering in relation to our own as humans. He introduces each setting and character relationship with such a considerable amount of dark, yet exquisite detail while venturing on the edge of obscurity. In my opinion, the language and overall storyline rivals those of historic authors past. It only took me one day to read the book this time as I couldn't put it down! I look forward to revisiting The House of Sleep in the next season of my life.
There is not much to remark of Lynn, except for the intrigue dreams hold for her. They seem to be the key to something. A therapist in a loving relationship with a man she plans to marry, Lynn’s world is a happy one. All of that changes, however, with an accident that brings her world crashing down and reveals the prescience of her sleep-time ruminations.
Broken and alone, Lynn has to find a way to feel something approaching normal again. She tries “lounging in the sun and meditating in the fresh air with calm and joyful music in the background, yoga and mantras and the words of the enlightened, but the sadness persisted in a bubbling forth and all those unified platitudes made her feel phony.”
Everything appears hopeless. Until Lynn learns of a strange commune run by an eccentric cult-like figure called the Diving Man, who claims to be able to help patients remember their dreams. This, Lynn believes, might be the means through which she can reach the love of her life from beyond the grave. The commune is known as the House of Sleep, a “Victorian mansion made of jade-colored brick.”
Things get complicated at the House of Sleep when Lynn encounters Daniel, who might just be Lynn’s saviour. But everything is mediated through the messianic figure of DM (reminiscent of Wallingford in Matt Pegas’ Dragon Day, which I review here) and his dubious physician, Dr Carl.
Kelly ably relates what is at once a love story, a story of loss, and a complex work exploring the boundaries between the real and unreal. He is strongest, in my opinion, in the early part of the book when his narrator recounts the rituals—meaningful and banal—of two young people in love.
On the other hand, a lot happens in the first chapter; the pace of the book slows down significantly in the middle part, and I felt certain sections could have been trimmed. And while the author clearly has a strong command of language, his style is florid, and will not appeal to everyone.
Kelly's prose was to me a little reminiscent of Jonathan Franzen (with some DeLillo sprinkled in). I have no idea how the old the author is, but the book has a distinctly Gen X feel.
The main issue I had was that I didn’t feel as much of a connection to Lynn as I did to, say, the heroine in Plath’s The Bell Jar. I subscribe to the old write what you know adage, and when a writer’s main character in no way resembles him or herself that distance comes through for me.
All of these are issues of taste. House of Sleep is an imaginative and moody novel. Kelly's book will appeal to anyone interested in the unconscious mind and the meaning of dreams.
Dreams have provided fertile material for literature. There is a vast lore attributing cause, purpose, and meaning to dreams. A novelist would be hard pressed to write about them in any new way.
Still, in “House of Sleep,” Brad Kelly’s mesmeric first novel, dreams are more than just chimeras of the subconscious. They are the shared visions that bind a community of “Sleepers” together, for, to them, “A dream you dream together is reality.”
The night before Lynn’s partner, Michael, dies in an automobile accident, she dreams of his death. Lynn despairs that she never had a chance to say goodbye and fears that “until I do, the part of me that doesn’t know he’s gone will be desperately looking for him.”
Lynn is a therapist at a mental health clinic. Nevertheless, nothing alleviates her grief. Upon a friend’s suggestion, Lynn checks herself into the House of Sleep, a communal retreat, “some kind of utopia on a plateau,” where “All I really know is that they are remembering their dreams.”
The leader of the Sleepers is Diving Man (DM), who is a combination of a bodhisattva, a charlatan, and a surfer dude. In the grand tradition of cult leaders, DM claims supernatural abilities. “I do not sleep. I am always asleep. There is no contradiction.”
Raised in a bomb shelter, DM wandered the world seeking self-knowledge. Ultimately, his search led to acquisition of the One, a drug created by the military (who else?), which turned wakefulness into “a sterile nightmare and dreamtime the favored seat of reality.” Communal ingestion of the One is the centerpiece of DM’s spiritual treatment.
A bedraggled stranger, Daniel, wanders into the domain. The survivor of a failed exorcism, he is psychologically fragile but spiritually gifted. DM recognizes Daniel’s potential; he also senses a mind connection between him and Lynn. Thus, DM hatches a plan to exploit their special powers.
Kelly writes as if having fun. He conveys the peculiar world of the Sleepers with crisp imagery and in a buoyant style, so there is playfulness even in darker passages. Conversely, his flourishes are sometimes overwrought, such as where he describes the surface of a river as “…the graven face of the water—its immensity aphanite and immanent, hypaethral.“ One adjective would suffice, please.
Like dreams, “House of Sleep” is weird and layered with multiple possible interpretations. However, I don't recommend reading it before going to bed.
What if we were able to have lucid dreams and bend reality in the process? Two people's lives that are linked by the existence of a third - a brother and a husband - connected thanks to the dreamworld recreated up in a mansion where a dream cult keeps its adepts from completely waking up. Although the story is relatively simple, its progression is not linear and it will surprises the reader with mind-bending changes and psychedelic introspections. Brad Kelly's prose is exceptional, his choice of words so exquisite and unique that in some chapters the story is just a tool in the background to show his skills as a writer. I'm looking forward to reading his next novel.