Although brief, Sleepless Nights is a powerful and evocative work. Divided into ten sections, the work loosely traces the life of its narrator from her birth in Kentucky, through her years in graduate school at Columbia University, her adult life in Boston, Maine, Europe, and New York, to her present life, alone, in an apartment in New York. One must stress “loosely,” for this is not a conventional autobiographical narrative. Instead, it consists of sharply drawn moments of time, people known, and places visited, interspersed with meditations and comments. The shape of a life is clearly present, but it serves mainly to locate people and places within a narrative frame. The stress in this novel is much more on the evocation of mood, feeling, and impression, than it is on the recounting of a chronology of events.
We also need to note that the narrator of this work, Elizabeth, bears some relationship to the author of the work, who also is named Elizabeth, was born in Kentucky, went to graduate school at Columbia, and lived in at least some of the places in which the fictional Elizabeth remembers living. This is not, however, autobiography, even lightly fictionalized autobiography. Instead, the author’s aim in this book seems to have been to create a character and to present her to us through having her offer us highly selective memories. Our role is to build up her portrait by reading her memories and her comments on them. In Sleepless Nights, we in effect spend some time in the company of this fictional Elizabeth and listen to her one-sided conversation. She is a lonely lady given to spending sleepless nights in the company of her memories. It is our privilege to spend one such night with her and to find that her experience speaks to the lonely human being in all of us. We must find her, finally, a woman of great humanity and courage, a person willing to live out the life she has decided to live, one who is painfully honest about herself and those she has known.
The tone of honesty is set at the very beginning; Elizabeth finds the crocheted bedspread on her bed evocative of the “niceness and the squalor and sorrow in an apathetic battle—that is what I see.” And so her life will consist of moments of all three—the splendor of New York and its life of culture and the mind, but also the squalor that hides in the glare of bright lights and the sorrow of so many people who live there. Stand in one place and look, she invites:Midtown—look toward the east, toward many beautiful and bright things for sale. Turn the eyes westward—a nettling thicket of drunks, actors, gamblers, waiters, people who slept all day in their graying underwear and gave off a far from fresh odor when they dressed in their brown suits and brown snapbrim...
(The entire section is 1134 words.)