The novel thrives in the realm of anti-art, testing boundaries and throwing clever punches.
“This example of anti-art deserves nothing short of scathing criticism,” asserts the first page of Jonathan Harnisch’s massive novel The Dreamer Sleeps without Dreaming. By turns aggressive and coy, The Dreamer plays with themes of rejection, desire, and self-discovery, but never reaches a firm conclusion.
Georgie, sick and overly medicated, checks himself out of the local psych ward just in time for his next existential crisis. He’s lonely, mostly, and tired of being trapped in his own head. At first, he seeks sympathy, but he quickly moves on to chase after the orgasm he’s sure will release him from himself. The search is fruitless. The narrator’s inability to attach to or engage with the plot is mirrored in Georgie’s chronic apathy: “He is both interested and uninterested, enthralled and bored. The self-doubt, the worrying, begins to make him tire of the whole experience.”
Seeking playmates, Georgie connects with a sequence of imbalanced but captivating women, who allow him to enact his dark fantasies. One girlfriend, Claudia, “still burns him from time to time, brings out the whip and the chains, just to keep him on his toes. But that’s just kid stuff.” As Georgie’s sense of ennui increases, so does his need to intensify his physical sensations. Hot wax, needles, and rock salt are all on the menu. Things continue to get weird, and although the plot stays more or less on course, the story’s repetitiveness—yet another female character with an hourglass figure, yet another untrustworthy doctor that Georgie is quick to dehumanize and outsmart—loses traction.
The real darkness is between Georgie’s ears. Although it’s billed as erotica, The Dreamer Sleeps without Dreaming is anything but titillating. It captures the sickening lurch of desire perfectly, but in a way that’s specific to its main character. It seems that the narration’s aim is to alienate, disturb, and repulse, and it does that with gusto, dragging Georgie through a series of misadventures over more than five hundred breathless pages.
Most unsettling is the narration itself, which is painfully self-aware, with frequent asides to the reader, observations that break the fourth wall and attempt to challenge the novel’s audience. Although initially distracting, the “who, me?” sprinkled throughout the text grounds The Dreamer in its genre better than any leather-strapped sex scene. Harnisch is at his best when he’s throwing punches, and more than one of them finds its mark.
The Dreamer is an example of anti-art growing wild. Harnisch seems to disavow responsibility from the first page; like Georgie, the remainder of the novel is an exploration of what he can get away with.
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