Dialogue with a Somnambulist
“In stories that capture whole worlds, and essays that dissect full lives, Aridjis has now proven her adeptness at nearly every form.”
What happens when a renowned novelist tries her hand at stories and essays? All good things.
With Dialogue with a Somnambulist, London-based Mexican American writer and Guggenheim Fellow Chloe Aridjis, author of the Prix du Premier Roman Etranger prizewinning Book of Clouds and, more recently, the PEN/Faulkner Award-winning Sea Monsters, transitions seamlessly to the short form with a collage of fiction and nonfiction.
The gems of this collection are its short stories, which account for half the book; the remainder is a quarter essays and a quarter “portraits,” which are, essentially, more essays. The stories, haunting and beguiling, run the gamut from fabulism to realism.
In the title story, the narrator adopts a wax model of the somnambulist from the 1920 German silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. At night, the statue comes to life, lurks around the narrator’s apartment, and grows jealous when the narrator brings her boyfriend home. After a time, the figure is donated to a wax museum, though it isn’t long before the somnambulist, depressed and suicidal, sets fire to the space, melting himself along with the collection’s other 249 wax figures. All that is left for the narrator to do, then, is to gift the somnambulist’s shoes to her boyfriend, watching “as he parade[s] around the room.”
In “Pigeon,” a bird meets a sad end when it ventures onto London’s Tube. Stuck in the train car, the bird is only a mild nuisance. Nevertheless, a man in a pinstriped suit chooses to dispatch it: “It was a clean snap, expertly done,” we’re told, “as if he’d been snapping birds’ necks his entire life.” Later, we see “the corpse on the empty seat next to him.”
And in “Crustaceans,” set at the end of the Bosnian War, an eccentric, brine shrimp-eating grandmother ghosts her immediate family, refusing to write, accept phone calls, or permit visits. Upon her demise, the family receives only “a printed card with black borders . . . no details about the burial or a will, simply a date, place and, as if anticipating our question, the word ‘pneumonia’ handwritten.”
Here is when we learn that, in the world of Aridjis’s stories, everything ends in death, and there are no resurrections. Bodies go unburied or unclaimed. Lives go unremembered. The best you can do is put on the dead’s shoes and maybe walk around in them for a little while.
Perhaps the greatest anxiety at the heart of this collection, arising in the story “In the Arms of Morpheus,” the essay “Kopfkino” (which discusses, in part, the composition of that story), and elsewhere, is the fear of sleep. Fall asleep, and you may not wake up. Wake, though, and you greet not only a new day, but, some days, a new worldview. Every waking is a little resurrection, after all. And if Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City taught us nothing else this 2023 summer, it’s the lesson that “you can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep.”
And Anderson’s filmmaking isn’t such a bad comparable for Aridjis’s work when it comes to matters of sentiment versus metafiction, human nature versus the chaos of human existence. And for a similar example of collage as art form, look no further than Anderson’s 2021 film The French Dispatch. Aridjis and Anderson may just share a muse.
In the book’s latter half, we wake from the dreamworld of stories to the real world of nonfiction. And, here, as with the fiction, the selections are varied, short and long, straightforward and experimental in structure. (One piece memorializes author and painter Leonora Carrington in 26 short paragraphs, each selection derived from an alphabetized characteristic that exemplifies the artist, from “ambidextrous” to “zoology.”)
The strongest essay, overall, is “Into the Cosmos,” a consideration of the history of the Soviet space program braided with recollections of the author’s childhood and her interest in circus performers. The twin fascinations coalesce beautifully: “The collective dream of space travel, the individual dream of flying.” As Aridjis writes: “Like cosmonauts, aerial circus performers lead a kind of kinetic existence, almost entirely defined by motion, their identity bound up with spatial prospects and limitations. (Stray from your route—on spacecraft, tightrope or trapeze—and it may cost you your life.”
The dangers don’t end there, and Aridjis catalogues the phenomena cosmonauts suffered in the 20th century: “changes in spatial orientation, a lack of feeling of support, the loss of personality and, worst of all, a feeling of separation from Earth.” Such feelings will no doubt resonate with today’s reader; one need not be “violently detached from our planet,” at history’s present moment, to feel dissociated, dislocated, and detached from one’s humanity.
While the remaining essays are strong, some were no doubt amplified by their former context. “Hymn to the Stray Dog,” for example, worked better, perhaps, when it appeared under a different title, on LitHub, as a publicity piece for the author’s last novel. One need not have read Sea Monsters to make sense of the essay, but the publication history explains why the authorial voice occasionally breaks from its reverie with potentially jarring lines like the line that begins: “When I handed in my latest novel Sea Monsters . . .” One wonders how the essay might read uncoupled from the narrative surrounding a book’s editing and publication, dedicated, instead and entirely, to a history of Mexico City’s stray dog population.
Conversely, there are two short, though not slight, pieces, presented back to back, in memory of Leonora Carrington. One can’t help wondering whether these remembrances, braided, might generate a greater power.
But these are quibbles. The fiction and nonfiction found here offer the reader a trove of portraits and tales. None will be for everyone—there’s not much worse than a book bent toward the nonexistent ideal of “universal appeal”—but most selections will thrill most readers.
In stories that capture whole worlds, and essays that dissect full lives, Aridjis has now proven her adeptness at nearly every form. Anxious readers no doubt await a volume of poetry with bated breath.