The challenge of a memoir is to captivate the reader through a narrative form that matches function. Sleep is Now a Foreign Country: Encounters with the Uncanny is a shape-shifting account speckled with ghost marks and smudges of time. Barnes, a contributor to the now-defunct online journal of arts and letters Numéro Cinq, run by Douglas Glover, surely is familiar with the most exploratory and experimental types of narrative. And this un-qualifiable book zigzags across any boundaries of genre or narration.
How does one tell, cogently, a story of losing cogency?
At times memoir, at times dissociative fable, at times personal essay, always with an unreliable narrator – and always hallucinatory – the story within a story within a story structure equates to a matryoshka narrative where layer and pattern consciously support meaning. The timeline begins in 2007 and starts at Picasso’s surrealist Guernica (on the 70th anniversary of that horror). Dates become echoes, images reverberate, and all time becomes synesthetic and warped. The number 70 appears over and over, dates overlap. In some ways, the structure resembles that of Nabokov’s Lolita, where echoes of the number 342 are symbolic of Humbert’s slippage; Barnes, too, uses such patterns to emphasize the funhouse effect of the breaking of linear time; a literal broken watch is used to suggest the drift toward breakdown through the scaffolding of synchronicity and form.
Childhood and the dynamics of schoolyard bullying are represented by the non-normative character Paul Tamburlaine, and his way of existing in the world. “Paul had escaped this teeter-totter of rote and recoil. He was always busy in his own world, etching his intentions upon it.” The childhood companion copes through automated responses and by skirting the fringes of societal norms. Like Paul, the narrator, in his continued dissociation, functions through rote and recoil.
Footnotes are used heavily to create a fragmentary narrative with detailed elements stitching back and forth on themselves to emphasize a further dissociation with linearity even as the writing maintains breath-close nearness to the perceptions of the narrator.
This close-up experience of Barnes’s psychosis is akin to being in a diving bell with the storyteller, extremely intimate and viscerally suffocating. “Precisely imprecise.” The bounds of realist fiction and nonfiction are blurred with narrative techniques using fragments and hazy details that culminate in a feeling of waking from a vivid dream not quite remembered, while recalling catatonic and aphasia states. “Wisps of meaning clung around some words, but then dissolved into jots and squiggles.” As Barnes elsewhere notes, “uncanny experiences happen in liminal spaces.”
Two-thirds of the way through, “the shutdown” starts: the narrator loses his ability to read or comprehend words; thoughts of suicide and amnesiac episodes prevail. Barnes has described himself as a collagist at heart; here, fragments of memory become a chigiri-e, forming an eventual portrait of a dissociated man and his warped mental states. “Slippages, I called them.” Eventually, the book ends in a dreamlike state that includes a hallucination of a past love, Lisel, that surprises yet does not provide ease to the writer or the reader.
The narrative structure of Sleep is Now a Foreign Country is a lesson in experimental form to convey an indescribable state that leaves no room for comfort.