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The Eyelid

by S.D. Chrostowska

“Sleeping one’s fill, as physical regeneration and cognitive housekeeping, is a luxury that even the rich, let alone those following suit, cannot afford,” writes S.D. Chrostowska in her 2015 hybrid of philosophy, criticism, and aphorism, Matches: A Light Book. “Lack of sleep is one of the few things they have in common with the poor. When they do close their eyes, neither expect the law to watch over them, only some good angel to keep away illness and bad dreams, or some personal god of discipline to keep them from sleeping in.”

For a late-capitalist society in thrall to the imperatives of neoliberal globalization, sleep has become anathema. Notwithstanding the ever-growing mountain of scientific evidence attesting to sleep’s importance for neurological functioning, heart health, and other bodily necessities, the continuous push to be more productive, more efficient workers places heightened demands on our conscious awareness and insists on allowing less and less room for the rejuvenating benefits of sleep. As Chrostowska attests, a lack of sleep is one of the rare points of commonality uniting either extreme of the income gap.

In her second novel, the York University humanities professor riffs on her earlier observation by imagining a world in which sleep is not only frowned upon by the holders of institutional power but outright prohibited. The Eyelid is set in a dystopian version of Paris – now a part of a global political entity known as Greater America – where citizens are administered a drug called Potium to keep them in a “beatific state of high-functioning sleeplessness.” The populace is kept docile by way of a virtual reality program known as Comprehensive Illusion, designed “to replace all natural creative imagination with artifice” – imagination being on par with dreaming as a threat to the state’s effective control over its people.

In this inimical environment, our unnamed narrator encounters the septuagenarian Chevauchet, who introduces himself as an ambassador from Onirica, the republic of dreams. While technically a part of Greater America, Onirica has managed to maintain itself as a holdout where humans can sleep and – more important – dream. Chevauchet takes the narrator on a guided tour of Onirica and convinces his protégé to return to Paris and foment a revolution by creating an underground community where citizens are allowed to retreat from the demands of capital by sleeping. (The community is literally underground, located in an abandoned mineshaft.)

Structurally, Chrostowska’s novel is broken into two parts. The first involves the narrator’s excursion to Onirica, a journey that explicitly evokes Dante’s Divine Comedy (the narrator even refers to Chevauchet as “my Virgil”). The second half features the narrator’s return to Paris and the implementation of “Operation Dormitory,” which has echoes of 20th-century dystopian novels, most particularly Huxley’s Brave New World and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. The traces of earlier works of science fiction are not confined to the obvious: in the first part of the book, Chrostowska alludes to Lucian of Samosata, a first-century Assyrian writer whose True History is sometimes cited as a foundational text for the speculative fiction genre.

Indeed, The Eyelid is a highly allusive work, namechecking everyone from Paul Éluard and Victor Hugo to Saint-Pol-Roux, a French Symbolist whose notion of “idéorealism” involved the use of art as a locus to overlay reality and the world of ideas. Chrostowska is not above being playful: during the tour of Onirica, the narrator watches a newsreel called The Tragedy of Buffalo – which is also the title of a 1901 article the anarchist Emma Goldman wrote for the paper Free Society following Leon Czolgosz’s assassination of president William McKinley. It transpires that the narrator is a distant relative of Czolgosz.

If the pervasive literary allusions provide one unifying force throughout the novel, another is the use of irony. The underworld is a symbol for the temporary death of sleep that presages the final, eternal sleep; it is no accident that the address of the Onirica embassy in Paris is 11, Villa d’Enfer. To get to the narrator’s Narcopolis, the people who have signed up congregate in a cemetery, by the tomb of the Bastard family. Nor is it terribly subtle that as Operation Dormitory picks up steam, the narrator begins losing sleep: “I made my bed, but not the time for it. Sleep beckoned, yet I ignored it.”

The Eyelid is a densely philosophical novel that addresses a number of undeniably pressing concerns for early 21st-century society: the pressures of conformity, the demands for increased productivity in a connected and information-saturated world, and the withering of the imagination as a creative force. “Only in dreams can we still act,” says Chevauchet, inspiring in the narrator a “potential for unrest” (note the dual meaning in the final word). Some readers may find the elevated tone of the narration off-putting (“I felt the boards move beneath my ischium”), but the form and content are generally in concert.

As a novel of ideas, the book sometimes plays its hand a bit too forcefully, with swaths of polemic shoehorned into the text in place of narrative: “Information was spectacle, mass entertainment, a constant screen interposed between world and mind. It left nothing to the desiring imagination, since whatever was worth being shown was spectacularly overexposed and, no matter how sensual or luxurious to begin with, all but stripped of its own aura – coming pre-consumed and pre-digested in ways that often were unimaginative, trailing behind it virtually, like a tail which there was no getting around.”

This slim novel contains an outsized ambition and an authorial agenda that are all too rare in today’s literary culture. That it doesn’t always succeed in its execution is perhaps forgivable; it reminds us of the subversive nature of the individual mind and its power to dream itself into a better existence.