The premise of Robert Cohen”s “Inspired Sleep,” which was published last year and recently released in paperback, calls to mind Don Delillo”s highly successful 1991 novel “White Noise,” the now classic meditation on postmodern anxieties that addressed the increasingly socially prevalent issue of chemical “cures” for the deepest of human paranoias. Yet this is only a surface-level association. Cohen”s book is far more down to earth and at the same time more personal and poetic. While Delillo”s hero struggled with a crippling fear of death, the heroine of “Inspired Sleep” simply cannot seem to get enough sleep. Cohen”s novel is rare and beautiful because of the originality of its strategy, not its concept. While many writers use people to make statements about culturally relevant phenomena, Cohen dares to use such phenomena to talk about people.
Bonnie Saks is an overeducated, divorced mother of two boys whose husband left her to enjoy a successful career as a playwright in Chile. She is plagued by an unfinished doctorate thesis on Thoreau. Her preschool-aged son is a chronic bed-wetter and the 11 year old is on Prozac. The adults she encounters invariably hide behind facades and self-delusion. In the equally hilarious and heartbreaking opening scene, Bonnie drives to an evening meeting of parents of children in her son”s cooperative pre-school.
The school is run by the parents, mostly University faculty in Cambridge, Mass., and the meeting”s topics of discussion range as widely as environmentally safe coffee cups and paternity leaves for the schools predominantly gay male teachers. When Bonnie”s sarcastic reaction to a comment of one of the more idealistic (and pretentious) parents unintentionally leaves her lips, she leaves the room crying, only to be followed by another parent, a lawyer who tries to convince her to smoke opiated hash with him in his car. The abundant humor and pathos of Cohen”s writing is brilliantly displayed as Bonnie decides to oblige simply because she doesn”t want to hurt his feelings: “But she was lonely and tired and felt vaguely inclined to please, if not herself, then someone else and too, she was almost forty, and for all her previous experience in minor drug use had never in fact seen opiated hash with her name on it before.”
The novel follows Bonnie”s convergence with Dr. Ian Ogelvie, a young researcher who is in the process of testing a drug that may put an end to Bonnie”s insomnia. Despite the convenience of this relationship as a plot device, it ultimately becomes clear that the purpose of their meeting has most to do with comparing them as human beings. Ian, whose goal in a literal sense is to help people sleep, is actually an over-confident, over-ambitious workaholic to whom sleep is trivial and the plight of people like Bonnie the object of some scorn.
The title of the work is somewhat misleading “Inspired Sleep” is not about dreams or any sort of unconscious inspiration for that matter. It is instead a study of human life, of life that is far from perfect but nevertheless always dynamic and real. The story is compelling throughout the 398 pages, up to and beyond the unexpected and very “inspired” ending. With its elegant and sometimes elegaic prose, “Inspired Sleep” is in a way appropriately titled, a sweeping lullabye of a novel for a generation of insomniacs.