Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Sleep furnishes quiet, solitude, reverie, and a shutdown of the fast-paced system of events. Renata Adler, through her narrator, adds an unexpected dimension to sleep’s powers: Sleep brings rationality to thought and the ability to be. Jen Fain, as a reporter, is more representative of a machine than a person: The reader who watches the six o’clock news can see Fain’s point. Unfortunately, when she steps out of her reporter’s clothes and tries to reenlist in the human race, there is a residual effect. She cannot escape the transition stage. Partially, this is a defense mechanism; the workings of the world and its people have gone haywire. The rational behavior that she imagines should be out there, is lacking. Only the description of what happens makes sense, and then only because it is observed, true. Real life, so the saying goes, is stranger than fiction, and it follows that if the sense derived from recording events is not ethically satisfying, then “unreal” life—dream life—is the only road to ethical wholeness.

Urban living, with its noise and its crowds and its practicality and its pace, is Adler’s symbol for the absurdity of wakefulness. Rural living’s peaceful attention to family ties, natural surroundings, and spiritual logic is the stuff of dreams. Jen Fain has a hyperextended mind from viewing too much paradox, nonsense. Her “earned” sophistication is taking her on a train ride to nowhere.