- “Observed, Measured, Contained”: Contemporary Fiction and the Science of Sleep
When the poet Al Alvarez spent two nights in the sleep laboratory at Atkinson Morley’s Hospital in Wimbledon, his host, the sleep physician Sharon Borrow, spoke with revealing ambivalence about the demands and rewards of her job. Although she was not always comfortable occupying a ringside seat on a spectacle as private and intimate as the sleep of strangers, she had nevertheless learned to trust the benign therapeutic effects of sleep science: “[S]ome patients say that the sleep lab itself is the cure. . . . And why not? They’re being observed, measured, contained. Someone is taking them seriously” (qtd. in Alvarez 74). The presence of Alvarez in the lab should remind us that there have always been nonscientific ways of observing sleep, nonscientific ways of taking it seriously; what is more, his two nights at Atkinson Morley’s—the first as observer, the second as watched sleeper—are evidence that contemporary literature is also beginning to take a serious interest in sleep science. Alvarez came not merely to observe sleep but to observe its observation, and, like Borrow, he is fascinated by what technology can now tell us about our sleep, even as he is uneasy at the asymmetrical balance of power, in the sleep lab, between those who sleep and those who wake. [End Page 56]
Alvarez is by no means the only writer whose imagination has been stirred by the ethical dilemmas and medical dramas that unfold behind the soundproof walls of these high-tech dormitories. In recent years, fictional characters have been spending an awful lot of time being “observed, measured, contained” in sleep laboratories, hooked up to electroencephalogram recording devices, monitored by infrared cameras, and eavesdropped on by microphones while their sleep confides its secrets in the polysomnograph, the machine that translates the silence of slumber into a stream of legible text. Few of contemporary literature’s troubled sleepers, it has to be said, emerge entirely cured or entirely satisfied from their nights under clinical observation. In David Foster Wallace’s short story “Oblivion” (2004), for example, the narrator and his wife check into a New Jersey sleep clinic to settle a dispute that has plagued their marriage for seven months. She alleges that she is being kept awake by his raucous snoring; he alleges that his “snores” are nothing more than figments of her dreaming imagination. Who is right? Science, in the form of the Darling Memorial Sleep Clinic, offers the possibility of an objective resolution to this potentially endless game of “he said/she said.” In the event, however, the “sterile chill of the Sleep chamber” (219) succeeds only in compounding their uncertainties and replicating the loveless coexistence of their married life.
“Oblivion” is only one of a spate of recent texts that have been written about—and often written against—the “sterile chill of the Sleep chamber.” J. G. Ballard’s “Manhole 69” (1957), Jonathan Coe’s The House of Sleep (1997), William Boyd’s Armadillo (1998), Robert Cohen’s Inspired Sleep (2002), and Alison MacLeod’s The Wave Theory of Angels (2005) all explore, with varying degrees of skepticism, the uncanny space of the modern sleep lab. Taken together, these texts are evidence of an emerging and indeed flourishing subgenre that explores contemporary sleep science, often via the tropes and conventions of science fiction; we can call it “sleep-science fiction.” But why has the science of sleep caught the novelistic imagination in this way? In the discussion that follows, I want to offer two interrelated answers to this question. First, I will suggest that these novels dramatize an ongoing territorial dispute between art and science over the nature of sleep. From medieval dream visions, to the oneiric aesthetics of Romantic poetry, to the bedroom dramas of Proustian [End Page 57] modernism, literature has been in the business of sleep-writing long before the advent of the polysomnograph, and writers have always liked to feel that they are on intimate terms with the twilight world of repose, slumber, and dream.1 Science, with its elaborate contraptions and technocratic jargon, is perceived to have muscled in on some of...