All your life you're dreaming

Peter Parker tags along on some nocturnal excursions; The Tiger Garden: A Book of Writers' Dreams edited by Nicholas Royle, Serpent's Tail, pounds 9.99

A sure way of making people's eyes glaze over is to announce: "I had the most extraordinary dream last night". Yet to the dreamer these nocturnal excursions are extraordinary. They both suggest a life beyond the quotidian and reveal imaginative powers many people would be unable to access when awake. Writers might be thought to have a particularly interesting library of dreams and, more importantly, ought to be able to recount them with skill.

Nicholas Royle had the clever idea of inviting over 200 writers to send him accounts of their dreams. No one was paid and all royalties go to Amnesty International, an organisation which spends much of its time attempting to alleviate waking nightmares. "In a bid to retain the oneiric atmosphere," he writes, "I have allowed those dreams scribbled down in haste to a result, there will be infelicities of language, there will be syntactical short-cuts, there will be liberties taken which these writers would not dream of taking in fiction." The problem with many contributions, however, is not that they have been dashed off but that they lack style. With some notable exceptions, there is not a great deal here that is interesting as writing. This might not matter if all the contributors were celebrated figures: even the hastily scribbled dreams of Doris Lessing, Will Self, Christine Brooke-Rose, Michael Ondaatje, William Wharton and Hilary Mantel would be worthwhile. There are many more well-known writers here, but an equal, if not greater, number of names unfamiliar outside genre fiction. One would think that writers of SF, fantasy and horror would be particularly good at dreams, but this proves not always to be the case.

In the wonderful introduction to Behold, this Dreamer!, his classic 1939 anthology of dreams and related subjects, Walter de la Mare warned that "waking recollection" of a night's travels into unknown realms "is difficult to translate into those obstinate and artificial symbols, words". Some of Royle's contributors (Nicholas Freeling, Giles Gordon) try too hard, some hardly at all. Fortunately, others have overcome the difficulty triumphantly. Desmond Hogan's recurring dream of Nazi persecution and ghostly children has been made into a beautifully shaped short story; Liza Cody's vision of a hospital where the uniquely warm blood of Sephardic Jews is drained into a central-heating system in order to coddle the premature twins of the Empress of China is very well recounted and authentically bizarre; Patrick McGrath's four sentences about falling into the carcass of a chicken the size of a house is alone worth the cover price.

Jack Kerouac's observation that "the fact that everybody in the world dreams every night ties all mankind together" provides Royle with an apt epigraph. It is reassuring to learn, for example, that even famous people dream of famous people. Robert Browning, Paul McCartney, Eric Cantona, Tony Curtis, Anthony Burgess (with boyfriend), Picasso and Dvork (duetting) and Salvador Dali all put in cameos. Michael Carson and Bernard MacLaverty dream of royalty, while D.J. Taylor dreams of A.S. Byatt, who is unable to return the compliment, dreaming instead of Iris Murdoch. (By way of compensation, Taylor appears in the dreams of the editor.)

Contributors relive unfortunate episodes from their past. Louis de Bernieres returns to Sandhurst; Jonathan Coe is still playing keyboards with The Peer Group. Suspiciously few admit to any sexual episodes - not even Fiona Pitt-Kethley.

"Dreams, alas, resemble far too frequently a tale told by an idiot" wrote de la Mare, "signifying even less than the literature he may reserve for his noonday." While The Tiger Garden reveals less of the creative processes than its publisher claims, it is nevertheless an oddly beguiling, and beguilingly odd, collection.

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