Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Review: Bedtime Story, by Robert J. Wiersema

Published: November 2010

Finally got around to it: December 2010

Gonna go out on a limb here: Robert J. Wiersema has a thing for broken families—maybe not even broken, but in the process of slowly, agonizingly falling apart. That, and childhood trauma of the sort that would likely scar one for life.

The narrative in Bedtime Story is charmingly simple, but layered with an almost unsettling amount of emotional honesty (as much honesty as one can convey through layers of magical realism). A writer whose second book is years overdue, struggles to connect to his wife and son. On his son’s birthday, Chris, the protagonist, gives him a fantasy book by an author he loved as a child. While reading the book, his son, David, suffers a dramatic seizure and becomes trapped within the narrative, fighting to resolve the story. What follows is, in essence, two interwoven narratives striving towards a unified climax.

This calendar year, I’ve read all three of Wiersema’s books: Bedtime Story, Before I Wake, and the novella The World More Full of Weeping. To clear the obvious from the table, I loved all three. He’s an incredibly creative, intelligent, and most importantly, reserved writer. Wiersema has a gift for giving a scene exactly the amount of severity it needs, never giving in to the ever-alluring pull of melodrama. He’s able to sell us narratives of magical realism, to convince us that the fables he spins are as possible as anything in our world by anchoring them to characters that break, that lie to one another, that hurt and betray one another, but still love each other and never, ever fall into the territory of the black-and-white archetypes whose villainous or saint-like behaviour can seemingly never be forgiven or related to.

Bedtime Story gives us a trio of characters in the protagonist Chris, his estranged wife Jacqui, and their son David that are an absolute joy to spend an entire novel with. Though in some ways Chris and Jacqui can feel like modest iterations of the husband and wife at the heart of Before I Wake, they are fully formed and three-dimensional in the sense that their language and actions never feel alien or hyper-realized, as so much lesser fiction would attempt to convey in an effort to increase the drama of a given scene or moment.

Though the structure of Bedtime Story is not terribly unique—many books have used the interwoven narrative approach to varying degrees of success—its payoff is worth the journey, as the manner in which the two worlds come together, both in terms of narrative as well as the visual avalanche of universes bleeding together, is truly climactic. As the individual parts become more entwined and less segregated into individual chapters, Wiersema aptly brings several lingering—but never extraneous—threads to a head that feels entirely earned.

In fact, if I were to lob any criticism onto Bedtime Story, it would simply be that it feels, in some ways, too similar to Before I Wake, especially in the realms of theme and characterization. That’s not to say that what is accomplished isn’t impressive—as it clearly is—but I was left with less of a feeling of genuine exploration into a new world, and more as if I were traversing a slightly less biblical and more Tolkien-esque iteration on a previous blueprint. Part of this feeling might be rooted in the fact that I have read all of Wiersema’s works in such short order, but that doesn’t change the fact that the similarities are there, and they are obvious to a fan of his work. And if I had to choose, the characters and narrative in Before I Wake are still the most captivating of his creations.

Wiersema is a gifted novelist, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention other authors I happen to love who also tackle similar character archetypes again and again (Murakami, Auster, King), but for his next work, I would love to see him step away from the broken family/childhood trauma themes and to really challenge himself on startlingly new terrain.

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