One of the many things I learned in the past year or so, as a result of taking extensive part in workshops on the art and craft of writing, is that good writers use the opening lines of their novels to lay out the cards, often stylistically as well as thematically. When one has finished reading the book, and returns to the opening lines, one discovers that the whole book finds its roots in those opening lines. As a result of this observation, I have learned to work over the openings of my own novels, not always to perfect success, but with that goal in mind.
Maia’s sprawling novel, “See You in Our Dreams“, does this to perfection. The first line of the book declares, ” ‘This place is a maze,’ she said, ‘let me show you the way out.’ ” The book is itself a maze, which is partly why it is a challenge to read. Pacing is slow, and there are many passages that seem to go nowhere at first, and then unexpectedly yield interesting destinations. The society in which the characters live is also its own maze, full of dead-ends and false starts, a world in which people have in general lost their way. And the novel sets up a culture that doesn’t appear to have anywhere to go, as well as a group of characters who, despite hopes of something more sustaining, appear locked into a maze within which there is no actual certainty that there is an exit. But the book does eventually point the way to the exit, although this is not exactly where we expect it to be.
Then, “her voice, the first time I heard it, sent shockwaves through me”. This sets the stage for the importance of physicality, of body, to this story. And of memory, which also weighs on the characters in important ways. And, also, of course, the fact that Budd is blind, so voice is what matters. Were we to downplay that, the chapter bears the title “Her Voice”, although there is some ambiguity there–“she” could be either Teri or Ariadne, the mysterious voice that speaks through the Dreaming. Finally, in the next few sentences, we have the announcement of a Corona Mass Ejection event, that is, an important event whereby the cosmos impinges on life on Earth in ways that resonate with our own present, and that announces hard times ahead. The CME event, and the author has a tendency to fall quickly into the use of such acronyms, and so one needs to pay attention to this since there won’t be other reminders, haunts a significant part of the book, so these first two paragraphs do a lot of work with regard to the novel as a whole.
And then, to cap the work of the opening paragraphs, “a tawny sweetness came to me, like lemon flowers Ma used to smuggle home from the arboretum”. This, if we have failed to notice, sets up the poetics of the text, and its sensuality. We are going to be immersed into the writer’s own tawny sweetness, with its traces of memory and expectation. The writing jumps back and forth between the present of the narrative, and the characters’ pasts, as it does here. Sometimes the transition from one to the other time is subtle, so we can be confused, but this is, I believe, intentional on the author’s part. Remembered time, and present time, aren’t always easy to separate, even in our own lives.
The book as a whole is a kind of future narrative meditation on the ecological apocalypse we are in the process of entering. Water has become extremely scarce, and the state is lying to us about what is really going on. In addition, cosmic events seem to conspire with the human-made catastrophes to worsen our status quo. In the midst of this, however, a source of hope arises, a communally shared experience of dreaming a better future. The novel explores this process of shared dreaming and how it plays out in the larger context. It is, of course, what we call today, “cli-fi”, or “climate fiction”, a subbranch of science fiction.
The book is divided into thirteen parts and a “coda”. Each part consists of a whole series of chapters which are not numbered, small sections that each bears its own name. The book also embraces multiple points of view, that is, for different characters. The whole novel uses 3rd person limited omniscience as its narrative point of view, but it switches its focus across different characters. Chapter headings often emphasize the relevant character so we don’t get confused when the voice changes.
To be fair, the rest of the first page presents the reader with some of the difficulties that can make reading the novel frustrating at times. Hence, for example, Talking Digital Guidance systems are introduced, and then referred to as TDGs. Further down the page, however, the acronym used is DGs. Presumably Digital Guidances, but it’s a guess. And the narrator refers to his “pak”. Presumably a pack, but there are a number of shortened or modified terms that are never explained, and not all of them have such obvious meanings. But those are minor issues, and are easily passed over, in the whole experience.
There is an intimacy to the reading. This became particularly evident when we read the text aloud as a group. And the text always carries you out into unexpected places. The more you dwell with the text, the more you find it has depths, and pleasures, that carry you forward on a poetic wave.
Another thing I feel drawn to say. Maia writes very differently than I do. This is a strength. I prefer to read texts that think differently than I do. Maybe she writes differently than everyone else does, making the text exponentially strong. But as a result, the text defies easy analysis, steps around obstacles in its path. This is not a book around which can draw a simple boundary. It spills outwards, in the messy, divergent way that is characteristic of good art, of the natural world, and, indeed, of the element water, whose diverse forms of absence and presence are so central to this text.
As I am working my way through my second reading, and this one in the company of a group, and a reading aloud, word for word, I find the text has gained even more thickness than it had on first reading. Its multiple voices sing to me, in the harmonics and rhythms between. Indeed, the Dreams pass through the story, leaving their trails as much in ourselves as in the characters, in a way that reminds me of the journey Samuel R. Delany delivers to us in his ‘Dhalgren’. Like Delany’s book, this one requires perseverence, but the language draws you on, the beauty of the landscapes also, and the ending, although satisfactorily also unresolved, brings about a sense of something ending and something else beginning. Those who love words lovingly handled, who love narratives which play, who want to re-imagine our futures, will find a powerful experience here, and one that will linger long after sounding out the last word.
I do not know if this is a book for the ages, but it is certainly a book for our own apocalyptic times.