The oasis where life's a blur

The House of Sleep by Jonathan Coe, Viking, pounds 16.99; Simon Louvish goes to slumberland and explores the modern English soul
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Here is a book which answers a question that has puzzled me for some time. What do the English dream? This strange people, who are capable of producing both Bertrand Russell and the Spice Girls, appear to have a bizarre somnambulant glaze that often confuses and confounds the foreigner. Jonathan Coe has committed a number of books examining these odd creatures, and here is another, digging a little deeper.

The setting of the novel, Ashdown, is a stereotypical Victorian clifftop house, the kind of place where American motorists with a puncture might encounter Bela Lugosi leering from an upstairs window. In Coe's book, this has been a 1970s student residence, transformed years later into a centre for the study of sleep disorders presided over by one ex-student, Gregory Dudden - yesterday a nerd, today a mad scientist.

In keeping with my alien outlook, I experienced some difficulty at first distinguishing between the blurred characters who fetch up, in both time lines, at this mansion. But it soon emerges that a certain amount of blurring of identities, and of desires, is very much a component of Coe's work. These characters are either narcoleptic, tending to switch off at random and awake confusing dreams with memory, or unable to sleep at all and wandering through life in a disgruntled daze. This reminded me of the late George Mikes, who remarked that the English declare "I say" and then fall silent for several hours.

So here goes: Robert used to love Sarah, the narcoleptic nut-case, who was briefly wooed by nerd Gregory, and worked, for a time, for a now-defunct film magazine with Terry, who is to discover Gregory's present secret. Furthermore, Sarah had, in the past, a lesbian pash for Veronica, which devastated Robert and was to transform his life.

The mini-dramas of dreams and memories are counterpointed by a theme of lost or forgotten works of fiction: a 1930s pulp novel called, of course, The House of Sleep, and a mythical Italian sex-'n-neo-realist director of whose last film, Latrine Duty, no trace can be found but an old faded photograph. (I must assure Coe that another "lost" film, The Ghoul, is not in fact missing but is slinking about in the vaults of one of our esteemed TV stations.) Terry, the insomniac film writer, carries this obsession with him towards the pulp reality of Dr Dudden's secret sleep-laboratory.

Dudden has concluded that sleep itself is a disease from which mankind must be saved. As the story progresses, the nervous banality of the floating characters shifts into a more sinister mode. But Coe, who is following his creations through the stages of sleep from dozing to rapid-eye-movements, shies away from a Universal Pictures denouement. No crowds of frenzied villagers emerge with torches to pursue the monsters to their doom.

Instead, a tangle of misreadings and misunderstandings is steadily revealed, with the characters travelling down twisted pathways to random, or ironic fates. The outcome is ingeniously plotted, and the final revelations have a melancholy that remains oddly haunting.

Coe's previous book, What a Carve Up, was a sprawling, cheeky social satire of what might be loosely termed the "ruling" or "chattering" English classes. The present book focuses on a kind of "middle-England", twenty- or thirty-somethings, decoupled from society. Unable to connect, their desires turn inward, until they encounter what Freud classically termed "the return of the repressed". No wonder they can't sleep, when their waking life so closely resembles shifting dreams. Perhaps we might term them "Wilson's Children". The next step has to be the "wannabee" generation, Thatcher's tots. And what will Blair's babies be?

The book ends with a recorded transcript of a patient. Ruby's sleeptime mumblings are a more coherent version of what psychiatric talk calls a "word salad". All Coe's characters, except the psychiatrist, are distressingly sane in their inability to achieve their desires. But behind this meticulously structured book lurks the potential of a darker, bolder and less tidy narrative. Perhaps Coe or someone else will give us this vision some day: the modern English soul according to Blake, rather than Blair. But, as I have become acutely aware, attempting any kind of verbal complexity is a literary sin south of the Borders.