Review: Sleeping Patterns by J. R. Crook

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Sleeping Patterns by J. R. Crook book coverSleeping Patterns (2012) is the debut novel of J. R. Crook. An exploration of consciousness and the author-reader relationship, this is an experimental novel that grapples with major literary theories. In a brief foreward the story is set by Annelie (known as Grethe throughout) who tells the reader that her old university friend and author of Sleeping Patterns, J. R. Crook, is dead. However, before his death he sent her fifteen letters, each containing one chapter of a book. Presented in the order they were received, these fragments form a fictional, non-linear account of the lives of several young people living in a student residence in London. Annelie is there, so too Jamie (Crook), but perhaps the central figure is Berry Walker, an insomniac writer who chain smokes and writes elusive and surreal stories late into the night. As the story is revealed so too is the nature of the young people's (often strange) relationships. An ethereal aesthetic pervades the novel, and the reader is forced to constantly reassess the state of reality within the novel's pages.

Barthes's famous essay, The Death of the Author, is a major influence within the novel, and the dedication to the (deceased) author indicates this before the first word of the novel is digested. Indeed, Sleeping Patterns is concerned with the relationship between the author and the reader, and features several layers of meta-fiction all drawing on the sub-textual communication inherent in any piece of writing. Crook stops short of Barthes's own conclusion that the Author should be entirely divorced from the text, and his output treated as an independent body to be interpreted by the Reader without reference to the Author, but Sleeping Patterns wrestles with this question, and the things that influence interpretation, throughout.

The novel is also concerned with consciousness and the nature of reality. This is expressed most demonstrably through the various characters' interactions with sleep/lessness and dreaming. That existence is affirmed at points, only undermines and questions tactile existence. The way the narrative is sewn together too creates a sense of ever-moving, unstable reality that subtly ties the state of dreaming with the art of creating fiction. The fragmented narrative distances the reader from the characters, and recreates the uncertain texture of the unconscious, where half-formed thoughts and expressions can drift by without any need for linear structure. The narrative jumps between perspectives and flicks between tenses. This furthers the disorienting effect, and perhaps also suggests the subjectivity of time and experience. The style, as well as creating a dream-like experience where time and reality are flexible, also lends itself to the lifestyle of students thrown together and allowed to run riot, their lives often meshing together in strange and unexpected ways.

Clearly this is a book with ideas, big and small. Some of the philosophical digressions find the mark better than others and certainly there is a lack of lucidity around some of the more obtuse ideas, but there is an openness and a fluidity of thought throughout that appeals. Perhaps the slightly muddled thinking is indicative of dream-like sensation, but it is nevertheless frustrating at times.

With snatches of ideas dancing across the pages of Sleeping Patterns it would be easy, at first glance, to condemn this as the exuberant attempt of a creative writing student to cram all their newly learned theories and favourite thoughts into their own writing. However, there is a simplicity and subtlety to the novel that helps it avoid this fate. Crook worked on Sleeping Patterns over a six-year period and refined it down from a 150,000 word manuscript to the slim volume that was eventually published; its pared down style is certainly to its benefit. However, while the prose is proficiently constructed (sometimes to the point of being a little too formal) it lacks any great flair, instead settling for bare efficiency. The novel's great strength then, is how intricately and meticulously worked it is.

The fragmented narrative and the general tone of the work creates a distance between the reader and the characters, and Sleeping Patterns certainly appeals, in the main, to the logical rather than the emotional. The breaks into Finnish dialogue (spoken occasionally by Annellie) alienate the reader too, and point simultaneously to the appeal of the foreign and ungraspable, and the power of language to exclude. In creating a detachment between the reader and the characters, the author too is creating a gap between himself and the characters, thus pushing them further into the sphere of the reader's ownership. It is an interesting paradox: the characters sit between the author and the reader, and so by creating distance between the characters and the interpreters (author and reader) the author simultaneously distances them from the reader and allows the reader a greater ownership by renouncing the author's own claim on them.

The book's dedication is to the memory of the author - the moment the reader opens the book, the author is dead. That Sleeping Patterns is made up of writing intended for Annelie personally means the reader sits outside of the novel, not the intended interpreter and yet a part of the story in his own sense. Transferring meaning to the reader, Sleeping Patterns' life continues outside of its pages, spreading out perpetually. The structure feels like a literary device rather than a logical by-product of the fiction, but perhaps this is the point: In breaking down the walls Crook has no obligation to make the fiction 'work', only to make the writing work.

Sleeping Patterns captures some big ideas and wrestles them into a neat structure. However, the ideas often feel a little muddled and are not drawn together sufficiently to create a truly wonderful philosophical novel, instead they hide disjointedly behind prose which never truly ignites. That said, this is a strange and appealing read. Self-consciously clever it draws the reader in and often tempts them into grasping for meaning where there is none. For a first novel this is a thought-provoking piece of writing, and one suspects, wiht his first novel under his belt, that Crook will have more to offer the literary world in the future.

A thought-provoking read, but perhaps one that tries to do too much at times. I look forward to reading more from Crook in the future.


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Reviews of Sleeping Patterns on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Sleeping Patterns on Amazon (US)

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J. R. (Jamie) Crook is a first-time novelist whose debut novel, Sleeping Patterns, won the Luke Bitmead Writers' Bursary 2011 and was subsequently published by Legend Press this year. Jamie is interested in experimentalism, writer-reader relations ... [Read More]

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