Monday, May 9, 2011

The World Is Abiding and Ever-Strange: The Carnival of Dreams in Ekaterina Sedia's House of Discarded Dreams

"The carnival offers the chance to have a new outlook on the world, to realize the relative nature of all that exists, and to enter a completely new order of things" - Mikhail Bakhtin

And so it begins, the House of Discarded Dreams Blog Carnival! Over the course of this week there will be celebrations and reflections on this book and what it has to offer,which you can find at the Blog Carnival link. It is a work that deserves attention for its strong writing, its challenge of boundaries, and its ability to stimulate the imagination. During this week I will write about this book in different ways to give readers a taste of what it has to offer, not just as a novel, but as a vivid text that inspires all sorts of thinking and dreaming.

When Paul Jessup proposed a "carnival," two images came to mind immediately: a festive midway of games and delights, and Mikhail Bakhtin. An odd juxtaposition, I suppose, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the former idea is merely the lead-in to the latter. To fete House of Discarded Dreams is not properly done as some sort of distracting array of flashing lights and hucksters; we have to go back to older ideas, to older stories, not just to the folklore that saturates the narrative of the book, but to the power of dreams and imagining.

The carnivalesque tales and practices that Bakhtin wrote about are not the same as Sedia's novel, but her book deftly exemplifies Bakhtin's idea that the novel is a sort of cultural heir to the carnival . Dialogism; the upending of certainties; the production, reproduction, and deconstruction of hierarchies and relationships; all of these things are present in her work. The sublime and the grotesque work hand-in-hand; images and ideas tumble forth and make the reader dizzy, sometimes confused, sometimes ecstatic. It lacks the vulgarity of Bakhtin's classic subject (and is, in fact, rather well-mannered), but anchors itself in the messy rapids of life by finding purchase in dialogism, the rocky shoals of hybridities, and in the mind of the readers themselves.

Before expanding these impressions, however, a quick review is in order. House of Discarded Dreams is a fantasy, a sort of feverish bildungsroman lodged firmly in dreams, longings, and mythlife. Vimbai is a college student living with her exiled parents in New Jersey who dreams of moving out. When a local beach-house is advertised she visits and meets Maya and Felix, and also meets the house. Intrigued, she moves in, and soon bizarre things begin to happen. As the novel progresses two things happen: Vimbai's world becomes more surreal, and she takes a journey from being a passive element of her own life to embracing responsibility for herself and others around her. The house itself becomes a world of dreams and regrets and sorrows, but also becomes a place that tests the lessons and burdens of history, that forces the characters and the readers to think about the story of their life.

It is an unsettling novel, but not because of the weirdness. It unmoors your perspective with the reactions of the characters, which defy the convention responses we often see in fantasy novels. The imagery is relentless, seemingly random, yet the novel ends up building a new world that forces the characters to examine themselves and their preconceptions, and challenges the reader to do the same. It seems to wander, yet is very direct in its effects on the readers as the weight of symbols and associations accumulate in the mind.

There's a lot to talk about in this work; I and other readers will suggest some ways to think about it over the course of this week. Enjoy the carnival!

No comments: