SIGMUND FREUD, a cigar smoker, warned against the overzealous application of dream symbolism to real life--there are times, he said, when a cigar is only a cigar. Not in this book. John Hawkes has no more use for superfluous detail, like non-phallic cigars, in his symbolist writing than he does for such commonplaces of novelistic technique as simple diction and chronological narrative.
Hawkes remains America's least-read major novelist, in spite of his solid critical standing and the growing accessibility of his prose. With his novel, The Blood Oranges, he began to pare down the dense, complexly allusive style that had saddled him with the reputation of a "writer's writer." The intricate plots of his early work gave way to simple, static situations. The Lime Twig (1961), still Hawkes's best novel, had the suspenseful, carefully interwoven plot of a detective story rendered in turbulent, opaque prose. The turbulence is still there, but plot has all but disappeared from Hawkes's novels. The Traveller of his new work is a middle-aged Dutchman, Allert Vanderveenan, who is waiting, alone, for his wife to leave him. This is clear by page two. What remains is to unfold the narrator's involuted emotional life with a disquieting force that could not have been imagined by the inventor of the catch phrase, "psychological novel."
Early in the book Allert explains his name:
...despite the accent on the first syllable, my name is clearly a repository for the English word 'alert,' as if the name is a thousand-year-old clay receptacle with paranoia curled up in the shape of a child's skeleton inside. I myself have always been quietly alert."
No word could be less appropriate to a description of this foreigner's sensibilities than "alert." He moves through a series of bizarre dreams interspersed with memories of two episodes: a menage a trois involving his psychiatrist friend, Peter; and a parallel affair on a pleasure cruise, with a young girl and a leering, malevolent ship's officer. But the real movement here is through the depths of Allert's consciousness--from an intensely still, death-like emotional withdrawal to an indistinct waking dream that is the closest the narrative ever comes to clear, objective perception. Allert submerges, as Peter puts it, "into the long, slow chaos of the dreamer on the edge of extinction." It is as if Allert were living a buried life, in a "flickering cave" where he makes connections and perceives truths that are beyond the ken of those of us who are truly "alert."
A vision as solipsistic as Hawkes's, admitting no perspective more tangible than the narrator's fantasies, doesn't leave much room for secondary characters. Except for Allert, no one in this book "comes alive," as the handbooks say. The effete, intellectual psychiatrist, the intense, childlike mistress, and the sensuous, motherly wife all remain semi-real cartoons, and yet all expand to become figures of mythic proportion in Allert's private universe.
TAKING ONESELF TOO seriously is always a gamble. Failures that lesser writers could get away with leave gaping holes in Hawkes's work. Allert's wife, Ursula, for example, never quite achieves mythic stature and threatens to remain little more than a parody, lounging about in a state of perpetual langour that is supposed to suggest sensuality. Hawkes only makes things worse with his clumsy explanation:
Ursula was to me one woman and every woman...Uterine, ugly, odorous, earthen, vulval, convolvulaceous, saline, mutable, seductive--the words, the qualities kept issuing without cessation from the round and beautiful sound of her name like bees from a hive or little fish from a tube.
Hawkes should have more confidence by now in the effectiveness of his symbolic technique. The fine net of images he weaves in Death, Sleep & the Traveller depends utterly on its unobtrusiveness and its reticence. Hawkes demonstrates tight-rope delicacy in bringing off the most predictable of metaphors, as when Allert feels in his own large body the dangerous stasis of the ocean liner unmoving in a rough sea. Surely the reader does not need to be bludgeoned with such passages as:
'Allert,' she asked me once, 'how can you tell the difference between your life and your dreams? It seems to me that they are identical.'
Hawkes invites us, implicitly, to view his book as a photograph album, like Allert's extensive collection of pornography, the work of "an entire lifetime." The faded dreams and the still memories could be pictures to be perused quietly, a few at a time. At some point, though, an undercurrent of terror cuts into Allert's pompous and affected narration and turns sequence of vignettes into a novel. One reads this book as one experiences a long, waking nightmare.