An anthology centered on sleep, our beds, and the various (in)activities that take place around them is an anthology with a natural pull. The possibilities are limitless; the stories are practically brimming with potential. As a subject, it feels more thematic and intriguing than those stuffy “Best of” or Best American_____ collections that are thrust upon us annually. (Though, I admit, I always fall under their sway, eager to discover what others consider “the best”.) In full duality, however, that same anthology could also trap itself in an endless cycle of unmotivated short stories about dreams and unfulfilled sexual exploits. And yes, The Way We Sleep inhabits both realms; the sleeping and the waking, the inspired and the insipid, and the stellar and the emotionless.
The Way We Sleep is filled to bursting with material, much of easily consumable in a few sittings. The brevity works well, too; The Way We Sleep reads like a sugar rush of midday naps and restless dreams. To deal in a subject so thematically dry in the physical sense, the emotional impact of the best stories strike hard at nerves that could only be punctured while our brains are at rest. Steve Himmer’s “Hands to Work” nails the frightful restlessness of that terrifying three-month period when you readjust your lives after a newborn arrives. “Snowstorm of the Century” uses the physical nuisance of snow to strike at the absurd relationship of an elderly father and his son, both of whom live in the wake of their dead mother’s shadow. And Brandi Wells’ “Sock Addiction” is sublime in its lurid detail of a friend who… well, I’ll just let the first line explain it: “My friend Joe has been sneaking into department stores so he can cum in all the socks.”
Stories like “Sock Addiction” and Susan Lin’s “An Unwanted Casket” offer a welcome shock by exposing the absurd reality of waking life—and also because they trip nostalgia wires embedded in our brains. Though, oddly enough, it’s the non-fiction pieces that are the most memorable. Mary Roach’s short “Sleepless in Suburbia” is a pre-dawn excursion into wedded habits, Jim Joyce’s “It Darkens, Brother” is a rabbithole of observations, while Megan Stielstra’s “A Third of Your Life” takes the rituals of the mundane and turns them on their head, giving frantic meaning to the effect routines have on our bodies and minds. Granted, I am not entirely certain Stielstra’s story is non-fiction (her protagonist is named Megan), nor am I certain Pamela Balluck’s painfully funny tale “Jugs”—a young woman’s remembrance of pre and post breast reduction surgery—is a true, either. I hope they both are; the layered detail and storytelling ability of each woman is careful but not overbearing. If they aren’t true, then I’m chalking it up my misreading to the loose, anything-goes nature of The Way We Sleep.
By a wide margin, the best piece is Margaret Patton Chapman’s “Most of All I Wish I’d Said, If You Come Back, Don’t Come Back to Me”. Chapman’s story is built on a simple premise—ex-boyfriend dies, ex-boyfriend comes back as a ghost—but Chapman flies across the spectrum of emotions, from humility to ridiculousness before finally ending on the sublime. It’s the kind of short story that cements itself in your memory and alters your vision of the present, something only the best short fiction can do.
Sadly, most of The Way We Sleep, tilts toward the mediocre, with a few contributions falling into the poor category. Anthology opener “Physiological Drought” lands with a thud and almost kills the momentum of the entire book before getting past page nine. And “Your Dreams and What They Mean” is exactly what its title states; a dry story about a female protagonists’ dreams. It’s a wide swing and a miss, as is Etgar Keret’s short “Cramps”.
Nearly all in The Way We Sleep holds potential—“The Excellent Actor David Straithan” squanders a promising title and premise with flat dialogue—but most of it just plays by the rules, especially the comics that bridge the two literary sections together. Most of the comics, some by stellar talent like Tony Millionaire and Jeffrey Brown, just seem formless and disconnected to the theme, adding nothing to the anthology. An odd choice given that the oversized layout of the book lends itself to the graphic novel format. Ditto for the brief interviews with comedians such as David Wain and Maria Bamford. They are all asked the same line of questioning (e.g., “What have you lost the most sleep over in your life?”) to the same “meh” effect. It’s filler of the worst kind, the kind that spoils a chance for fresh ideas.
The Way We Sleep is ambitious and inspired by the need for fresh thematic anthologies. When stories catch a spark, it’s rousing, and publisher Curbisde Splendor and editors C. James and Jessa Bye get a gold star for producing an ambitious anthology that doesn’t play by the rules. But that effort only carries it halfway through the race, just shy of the finish line. There’s a lot to admire, a bit to love, and some unfulfilling moments. Just like waking life.