Books: Quips about kipping

THE HOUSE OF SLEEP by Jonathan Coe, Viking pounds 16.99

One thing everybody will remember about Mrs Thatcher is that she only needed four hours' sleep a night. Or was it three? No matter - it gave her a vaguely mythical status to many, and for Dr Gregory Dudden, in this new novel, it made her a heroine. Dr Dudden runs a sleep clinic in a chilly, clifftop English house , and his view of sleep is an unusual one. Far from being "sore labour's bath / balm of hurt minds" etc, it is a disease, a disastrous human weakness that it is his life's work to eradicate:

"Forget cancer, forget multiple sclerosis, forget Aids. If you spend eight hours a day in bed then sleep is shortening your life by a third! That's the equivalent of dying at the age of 50 - and it's happening to all of us. This is more than just a disease; this is a plague!"

Add a group of characters which includes Sarah, a narcoleptic who cannot stay awake at moments of crisis or emotion and mistakes her dreams for reality, and film-buff Terry Worth, who never sleeps at all, and we have the basic recipe for Coe's novel. A decade earlier, Ashdown, the clinic, was a hostel for students, temporary home to the cast who slowly, coincidentally, reassemble around the house, and the theme, of sleep. The book is knitted up of predictable flashbacks, with an unnecessary structure referring to the stages of sleep, but it is a rich mine for Coe's celebrated humour.

In contrast to the hot, angry, hilarity of Coe's brilliant What A Carve- Up!, though, the mood here is less political, more slow-burning, sinister and interior. There are plenty of jokes, highbrow teases and trivial pursuits for cineastes, larded with the broad farce to which Coe is partial (Terry spends his life hopelessly searching for a lost film called "Latrine Duty"). Dr Dudden is the very picture of a B-movie mad scientist, conducting ghoulish experiments in the basement; Terry Worth is surely a cod-comedian's name: the whole construct provides an elaborate, efficient framework for Coe's rather brainy investigation of control and helplessness, fragility and willpower. "Nobody would ever lie in their sleep," Sarah believes. But do we believe her?

It's a love story, too. Sarah and Robert knew each other as students at Ashdown, and their reunion provides many touching moments. But Robert's belief that Sarah is gay leads him to some drastic measures which, unfortunately, prove not to be as surprising as they should be.

The disappointment about this novel is that its clever author is too lofty a puppet-master, moving his emblematic characters about in a way that is often disconcertingly lifelike but never really filled with life. His theme of sleep and dreaming provides such a deep stream of metaphor, serious meditations and corny jokes that it's hard to tell which Coe wants us to adopt. He has even made, in Sarah, a heroine who falls asleep at moments of hilarity: a skittish, if risky, self-spoof. But what is he trying to tell us? That we are all sleepwalkers?

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