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Stages of Sleep Paperback – August 25, 2015
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In “Stages Of Sleep” Thurkettle offers up 15 stories, some of them are absolutely brilliant and some of them are whimsical and some of them are farcical and far-fetched. All of them are disciplined and well conceived. All of them have a sense of immediacy, and involvement.
He manages to get a tremendous amount of force and emotion in the work without being cloying or reaching too far. And he manages to convey the idea that he really, really, really loves writing. And he manages all this and still avoids the trap of self-indulgence.
Nicholas Thurkettle’s “Stages Of Sleep” is a triumph for self-publishing.
Please note that I received a review copy directly from the Author. Also please note that I purchased my own copy directly after.
For me, the two centerpieces of the collection are "Torpor," about a disaffected veteran who, inexplicably, decides to hibernate, and the friend who enables him, and "My Story of the Midway," about a storyteller's visit to Hell. Other stories, while slighter, were quite charming, like a short piece describing the perspective of a waffle iron, or the story of a visit to a train museum in the middle of nowhere. There is a lot to enjoy, and to connect with, and the stories are well worth a read.
It would be hard to find a unifying theme that ties this collection together, but that is understandable when we learn how Thurkettle came to write them. He has long been fascinated by the momentary intersection between waking and sleep and the oddly hypnotic images and thoughts that fill that space. Not quite real, but not imaginary, the moment provides the ideas that coalesce into the author’s short stories.
No wonder they are all different, but strangely connected as well. Strangely familiar too as if Turkettle was privy to my own drifting thoughts.
Here are just a two of the odd, but fascinating characters Thurkettle discovered and put to work on the reader’s behalf.
Maurice is the night manager of a hotel and witness to a progression of odd characters and events, but none so unusual as his own mechanism of shedding the elements of his life that he will not carry with him into his next incarnation.
Evan, after he lost his job, became diminished in his mind at the same time that pieces of his body begin to fall away.
The fantastic elements of the stories serve to tickle the readers imagination and highlight some of the horrors about which Thurkettle writes, but these stores are not simply tricks to startle a reader. The characters struggle with profound issues that readers can identify with, if at the same time they can take some relief at not suffering the afflictions that plague Maurice and Evan and others of Turkettle’s characters.
Nicholas Thurkettle has rightly identified the fitful slipping in and out of semi-consciousness that passes for sleep today as a central refrain or an emergent theme in his outstanding collection, "Stages of Sleep." The centerpiece, "Torpor," is less outré than some of the others, but it originated, the author tells us, in an odd experiment: he attended to the experience of falling asleep. (Even stating this raises so many logical and phenomenological issues that I may get no rest at all tonight.) "Torpor" is the story of a profoundly traumatized veteran's decision to isolate himself for the long months of a northern winter. To hibernate. "...I think I want to," he says, "to just be in my house. Turn everything off, cover up the windows, make it dark. Make it a cave. And, just, sleep, as much as I can, until...I don't know. March, maybe."
Insofar as a narrative can be about something, "Torpor" is about the innocent sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care. But the story also has to do with luck and will. With private anguish and the kind of lasting friendship that men can still have outside urban and corporate life. With individual needs and the abiding love that can grow between two people. With the temptation of solitude and the terror of silence no less than the healing that may or may not come in the course of time. Thurkettle's tightly constructed stories are bursting at the seams.
The storyteller's brief, of course, is not to set forth ideas but simply to recount events. (That “simply” glosses over all the blocks and false starts and revisions—“courage in the face of paper,” as Nietzsche called it, and sheer doggedness.) Having invented a premise, creative writers follow the dream-logic of the narrative just as historians adhere to primary sources and original documents. And, however imaginative the premise, good stories ring true. In "The Story of the Midway," one of the best in this collection, the narrator dreams the devil guides him through an unorthodox hell with the understanding that he'll write about it. As the tour comes to an end, the narrator asks himself, "Was the story finished? Was it true? Did I understand it? I had taken those questions as my own. My body was frozen and all I could think was, Is the story told? Is the story told? The noise, the noise, the fear and the noise. Is the story told?" Thurkettle takes the questions of narrative structure, truth, and insight seriously, takes them as his own, and, writing through the noise and the fear, tells damn good stories. Old Nick himself would have to agree.
When I was younger, I'd sometimes startle myself out of the earliest stage of sleep because I dreamt I was dropping through the abyss. The experience was so frightening that I was convinced it was more than a random muscular contraction or an unconscious pun on falling asleep. I knew it had existential import: it meant that I was making myself up on the fly, inventing myself in midair, sustaining myself by force of will, and perpetually in danger of falling back into the void. Later I learned that, in Stage 1 sleep, waking with a spasm from the sensation of falling—hypnic myoclonia—is, in fact, fairly commonplace. It is clinically associated with anxiety, stress, an irregular schedule, and the intemperate consumption of caffeine. I emphatically subscribe to the scientific account. All the same, even now the acute sense of being a fraud still haunts me.
Thus our dreams become real and our words convey more than they denote. We find meaning wherever we look, and we communicate more than we realize, and we can't help it. Those half-heard questions—identity, memory, chance, choice, loneliness, redemption—worry writers in the archaic sense that a tongue worries a sensitive tooth. They hound them, badger them, follow them from place to place like the piece of roadside junk in another one of this volume's 15 stories, "Marvin Karl and the Whatsit He Found on Tuesday." They disturb the flow of creative thinking like the invisible spheres of not-quite-synchronized time that make people queasy in “Bubbles.” Whether or not writers are privileged readers of their own work, Thurkettle did well to put these narratives in the context of sleep and vigilance; it’s a perceptive approach to interpreting many of them. But no single theme could contain, much less exhaust, the philosophical richness and psychological acuity of the stories in "Stages of Sleep."
Philip Lawton is an essayist and actor in Orange County, California and Albemarle County, Virginia. He was given an advance copy of "Stages of Sleep" in exchange for offering to review it.