A finalist in the National Book Award competition for 2004, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s Madeleine Is Sleeping is experimental in subject matter as well as form and is essentially surreal. Instead of chapters, the novel is divided into brief impressionistic observations on events or characters which range from a single sentence to a page or page-and-a-half in length, each bearing an enigmatic title. Set mainly in a French village, the reader inevitably thinks of the earlier Madeline, one of “twelve little girls in two straight lines” in the convent in Paris, and is not disappointed when the sleeping (or dreaming) Madeleine visits the same convent. Any similarity ends there, however, between the innocent young Madeline and Madeleine whose experience includes masturbation, pedophilia, and general obscene and reckless behavior. As punishment for her ways, her mother thrust her hands into a pot of boiling lye water and Madeleine’s hands are permanently disfigured, the fingers grown together to make paddles.
The novel is replete with strange characters. Notably, there is Matilde, a grossly fat woman who inexplicably sprouts two pairs of wings and flies up to housetops; Adrian, a photographer who had as subjects Victor Hugo and Gustave Flaubert among others; and M. Pujol, a fartiste who was known in Paris and throughout the provinces of France as an entertainer with a special gift for flatulence. He drew large crowds who came to witness his ability to control his anus to play tunes, to exhibit a range of sounds, and to blow out candles at a considerable distance. He became Madeleine’s favorite friend, one who endured her hands turned to paddles applied to his bare backside.
To say that this novel defies categorizing is an understatement. Bynum’s style is simple and direct regarding her use of language, but sense and meaning are veiled in mystery. The reader should be prepared to read the work more than once and still have unanswered questions.