What happens if the wrong sort of dreams come true?

Jonathan Coe's new novel is about sleep. And sex changes. By Baret Magarian
Click to follow
JONATHAN COE took the literary world by storm when he published his fourth novel, What a Carve Up!, in 1994, a sprawlingly complex yet completely controlled narrative that fused political satire, Gothic horror, and social realism. The House of Sleep, the follow-up, also cross- fertilises different genres, takes place in two time frames separated by 12 years, and blends satire with the techniques of dream disorientation. During our time together, I gained a glimpse into the nature of Coe's creative sensibilities and the way he has dazzlingly combined originality with accessibility.

The characters of The House of Sleep fall in and out of love with one another, long for fugitive perfection via their dreams, and fail to seize opportunities in their waking ones. The novel is about sleep disorder, love, loss and the past's emergence into the present. Towards the end, Robert, one of the central characters, undergoes a sex change that gives the book an almost surreal flourish at an unexpected juncture. Some feel that this development comes out of the blue, but for Coe it was the starting- point of the novel.

"A man is in love with a gay woman and the only way he can win her is to become female. That was the premiss I began with. And it is what the novel is about, as far as I'm concerned. It was also an obvious metaphor for change. All the characters in the book are changing except for Gregory, who has no capacity for doubt or uncertainty, or any of those things. But I suppose there are people like that who, in order to get what they want, money, success or whatever, shed or suppress vast amounts of themselves."

Sarah, the book's heroine, suffers from narcolepsy, one of the symptoms of which is the belief that the events of her dreams have occurred in real life. This results in some great comic moments, but there is another, more serious agenda here.

"In the case of dreaming up a twin sister for Robert, she's obviously trying to create someone who she sees as her ideal partner. I was also interested in that cliche about making your dreams come true, something that lovers say they want to do for one another, so I thought I would take that literally. Sarah would have this dream about a person who didn't exist and whom she wanted to love, and then Robert would actually become that person and bring her into being."

Coe's third novel - The Dwarves of Death, which he is currently turning into a screenplay - is a very funny thriller about William, a musician who gets embroiled in the seedier side of London. William suggests parallels with Robert as both seem incapable of connecting with life on some fundamental level. The novel, like his first three books, has a small-scale feel to it. There is a huge leap from this to What a Carve Up!, the 500-page epic that followed. How did this come about?

"Well, I dashed off The Dwarves of Death in just five months and, afterwards, wasn't very happy with it. That dissatisfaction led me to What a Carve Up! and the impulse to write a book that I really wanted to write, over a much longer period of time. I knew I wanted to write some kind of satirical response to Thatcherism on a national scale."

What a Carve Up! combines the plight of Michael, an emotionally repressed writer, with the story of the Winshaws, an omnipotent, merciless juggernaut of a family that Coe modelled on several Tory politicians and ludicrous media figures from the Eighties. As in The House of Sleep, there is much juggling of different plot lines and an effortless ability to bring disparate subjects together, so that, for example, the rhetoric of the Gulf war sits alongside the spectre of Yuri Gagarin. I asked him about the decision to incorporate the war into the narrative.

"The novel came together as a narrative construct in my head at the time the Gulf war started. The mixture of physical reality and media-filtered unreality that characterised the war is so much what the novel is about. It felt like the right thing to hook the novel on to."

Before he became a novelist, Coe studied at Cambridge and Warwick universities, completing an MA on Samuel Beckett and a PhD on Henry Fielding, two of his literary heroes. How much of the academic background has a say in his fiction?

"As little as possible. I think my first novel, The Accidental Woman, has academic leanings in that it is a novel about authorial intentions. It's bordering on pastiche Beckett, and is greatly influenced by Watt and Murphy. The central character is the intrusive narrator. But the motto I had pinned over my desk was Hitchcock's formula for engaging an audience: torture the heroine. Now that I know a bit more about the kind of man Hitchcock was, I wouldn't adopt that approach quite so wholeheartedly."

In addition to adapting The Dwarves of Death, Coe is currently at work on a new novel, set, during the Seventies in Birmingham, where he grew up.

"It's the most realistic and conventional of my novels so far, which is why I'm finding it rather hard going. I think it's really about my schooldays. The Seventies represented a rather shocking period of political instability, complete with power cuts, strikes, three-day weeks. We were like an Eastern European country on the verge of collapse. I want to write about that instability as if it were perfectly natural, which to a young boy it would have been, as the novel's going to be seen through his eyes."

Coe believes that there is nothing like a compelling story for drawing a reader into a book. He is also acutely aware of the way humour can sugar the pill at some of the more demanding moments. It is these factors which have, without doubt, contributed to the popular appeal of his work.

`The House of Sleep' is published by Penguin at pounds 6.99