Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum's Madeleine is Sleeping reads like some kind of amalgamation of Angela Carter and Steven Millhauser, cross-bred with a little garden-variety surrealism. The problem is that the novel bears these influences or commonalities too obviously, in my opinion failing to assimilate them into a fresh or distinctive work of literary art.
Too much of Madeleine is Sleeping seems perfunctory and predictable, making whole sections of the novel rough going, as their importance to the narrative is difficult to perceive. Finally the reader must conclude that this a novel in which mood and atmosphere are more important than the narrative particulars, its initial conceit more central than what could be discerned as its structural unity. There's nothing per se wrong with such an approach, but the execution in this novel unfortunately remains uninspired, taking the reader's interest in its admittedly strange characters and events too much for granted.
Scott Esposito seems to have understood the book's entwined plots more clearly than I did:
It is the story of Madeline, a little girl meandering between two worlds separated by the soap-bubble of her sleep. On one side is her family, living in a verdant French countryside and keeping vigil over the sleeping Madeline; on the other side Madeline roams, living with a troupe of gypsies which includes a woman who plays herself like a viol and a flatulent man who can imitate an amazing array of sounds. . .
Madeline’s fall within her dream world is paralleled by the fall of her family: The fruit in the family’s orchard, from which Mother makes her treats, goes rotten; Madeline’s brothers and sisters grow gradually more feral; and the villagers begin to treat Madeline’s family with contempt. Perhaps intuiting a link between Madeline’s dreams and her family’s plight, Mother decides that the only way to make things better is to marry off the sleeping Madeline (whom she now considers indolent) to the village idiot. (Conversational Reading)
As I have already indicated, I found most of the details of the paired dream/"reality" plots cursory, not finally important to the overall effect the novel is intended to convey. Certainly I found their relation largely unengaging. Perhaps the primary reason why the novel failed to capture my interest except intermittently--some of the scenes are odd enough that they do have a certain degree of charm--lies in the writing itself. Too much of it seems to be straining after a kind of pictorial effect, an effort to report the story as it might be seen in an animated film or, indeed, in a vivid dream:
The curtains open onto a darkened hallway, so dark that she must run her fingertips along the walls, and at the end of it, there are more curtains, as dense and velvety as the first, Then there is a warm room, with walls the color pomegranates, where she is given toast with raisins, told to take off her shoes, placed before the fire on a footstool. And above her, on the mantelpiece, is a miniature circus made all of tin, with its stiff pennants flying and its elephants parading.
There is a certain energy to the prose in Madeleine is Sleeping, but it is all expended on simply reciting the weirdness of Madeleine's dream, of her situation more generally. In the work of Carter or Millhauser, the fairy tales and fables these writers bend and distort are only half the story; language itself it often the real subject of their fiction, as it is used to transform these fables into meditations on the possibilities of fiction, on the nature of art and imagination. Bynum's writing does not rise to this level, as if she is too intent on merely recording the bizarre events in her narrative vision to attend to the more wide-ranging implications such a vision might carry.
I admire Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum's ambition, her apparent desire to write something other than the usual coming-of-age story. I'd even be willing to read her next book, to see where her instincts for the unconventional take her. But Madeleine is Sleeping strikes me as apprentice work, evidence of a talent not yet ready to transcend its own audacity into something more artful.