As a child, my mother once dreamt there were prairie schooners in her backyard. Hundreds of them. She watched from her bedroom window as pioneer women in bonnets and pioneer men with beards disembarked from their wagons, congregating on the freshly mowed lawn. Native Americans arrived with fish and gourds, and together they feasted. The vision, she said, was one of perfect harmony.
My mother grew up working class in the Midwest during the Seventies. Every morning, breakfast was a toasted English muffin stamped with margarine. Every afternoon, she and her friends rode their bikes to the river and parked on two mounded water units nicknamed The Boobs. Once, they saw an escaped inmate from the state asylum, naked from the waist down, perched in a tree.
In telling me her stories, my mother often detours into her dreams, cutting fiction and nonfiction on the same reel of film. For her, dreams are inextricable from the act of remembering: “Out of the whole of memory, there’s one thing worthwhile: the great gift of calling back dreams,” reads the epitaph of Stuart Dybek’s Coast of Chicago (1981), a book that takes place in a Chicago not so different from my mother’s Elgin, Illinois.
Outside my family and Dybek’s fiction, dreams are far weaker currency. They’re considered common, guileless and, despite their absurdity, boring. This bias manifests in Naomi Epel’s 1993 Writers Dreaming, a collection in which 26 writers sort themselves into one of two camps: those who follow dreams down the rabbit hole, and those who cork the hole as soon as the dream goes in. Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, the various magical realists—they stand with the former. Among the latter, John Barth, Jonathan Franzen, Susan Sontag and Richard Ford, who refers to dreams in fiction as “solipsistic self-regarding embroidery.”
Dreams are difficult to share because they tug at subjectivity from either end, with one side straining to convey an imagined experience and the other straining to recognize it. But this is the fiction writer’s paradox. Some truths can only be parsed by stretching at them.
One morning this summer I started Coast of Chicago; three whirlwind days later and I’d finished all Dybek’s books. His narratives often involve mischief, and thus belong to the family of stories I’ve grown up on. Trouble, like travel, is something I think you can regret not getting enough of while you’re young; or so I felt after reading Dybek, who does not glamorize recklessness—if his characters have cause for their rebellion, it’s boredom, neglect or both—but who does make glorious the act of the boy who’s been reading too much Kerouac standing up in the backseat of an accelerating 1955 Chevy at midnight, extending his arms, and shouting “Beauty, I dig it!” at the skyscrapers blinking by.
The story of this boy and his neighborhood friends, “Blight,” won the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award for fiction in 1985. The characters are neither “tough punks” nor “scared ones,” as Algren classifies their kind; rather, they seek shelter in the anonymity of the in-between, christening themselves “No Names” and waiting for the inertia of war, prison, or adulthood to wash them each away. A first-person retrospective, “Blight” ends with the narrator riding the ‘L’ to his old neighborhood, hoping to see it as if for the first time. This return trip has been an entire story in the making: like Orpheus, he looks back because he’s been on his own too long.
When they are together, the boys in “Blight” have their own dialect. Their language is based on simultaneity of feeling, a shared vocabulary of the sublime. They experience each other’s extremes, so that whoever’s feeling high has someone to bang on a Chevy with and whoever’s feeling low has help pushing it into the river. Occasionally they put their emotions into words, as is the case whenever they exchange dreams. Ziggy, for one, dreams that an atomic bomb will drop if the White Sox win the World Series. After the White Sox clinch the pennant and sirens wail, Ziggy is never the same. The dream is the only way Ziggy’s friends can comprehend his fear and, when he leaves for the monastery a few mornings later, his flight.
In Writers Dreaming Clive Barker says that dreams give us access to the irrationality that is “part of us all”: “not some lonely, terrifying vista” but “a panorama we all wander through.” Because in dreams the most private, unknowable fragments of ourselves slip into view, when we share them with others we confess a kind of madness. The worry is that this is a vulnerability, something that makes us harder to trust and harder to love. The boys in “Blight” prove this wrong. Madness is one of the only ways in which they understand each other.
When I met him at a poetry event this summer, Dybek said there’s a trick to slipping dream sequences in fiction. Often a dream’s considered too obvious, a showing of the writer’s hand. But Dybek pointed to Franz Kafka as an exemplar: Kafka never publicized his reliance on dream material but his diaries suggest inspiration from “semi-somnolent fantasies.” Upon coming home from the Prague Employee Accident Insurance Institute at two o’clock in the afternoon, Kafka often took long naps, and many of his works were conceived in these semi-comatose states. Dybek’s recent collections exhibit more of Kafka’s influence. In one story from Ecstatic Cahoots (2014) a man comes across a “confluence of doors.” He moors his raft to the island, walks onto it, and a knocking starts—soft at first, the sound crescendoes into an abusive pounding. When I asked which of his stories were inspired by dreams, Dybek said this was one of them.
One night, instead of going to sleep, I spent hours wading through the database of dreambank.net. The site was introduced to me in a psychology lecture—the same in which we analyzed Tony Soprano’s dream where a duck flew away with his penis—as a catalogue for psychoanalytic research. Each entry provides the person’s name, a few adjectives, and a sampling from their dreams: Tom the Outgoing Man fantasizes about communal jacuzzis, Merri the Artist dreams of a swampy Everglades aisle of Winn-Dixie, Melvin’s wife lets loose in a nudist colony in Arizona, etc. Pegasus the Factory Worker is perhaps the most Dybekian archetype on dreambank.net: an industrious Midwesterner, Pegasus began logging his dreams to look for clues for his horse gambling. In the single transcript of his dream, however, Pegasus’s account of a car folding in on itself is somehow mundane. It offers few stylistic flourishes; the progression is hard to follow and every other sentence starts with “then.” John Barth once compared dream sharing to describing what you ate three meals ago: “Either you’re good at telling what you ate or you’re not.” Were you to subject Pegasus’s dream to the Barth breakfast test, it would not pass.
When Dybek talks about horse racing in Paper Lantern (2014), it’s in the story of voluptuous Rosie and her sumnabitch ex-husband. When they’re at the track and Rosie’s closing her eyes, sensing in her breasts the lucky Pick 3, things between them are good. When they’ve spent all their cash on a money pit bar and the sumnabitch ex-husband is possibly sleeping with a neighbor who leaves her lacy slips on the clothesline, things are not. During the good times, the sumnabitch ex-husband asks if Rosie knows the difference between a dreamer and a visionary. She says no. “A dreamer’s asleep,” he says. “The visionary’s wide awake.” But there I think the sumnabitch gets it wrong. The difference between a visionary and a dreamer is that one gets an audience, the other has no one to listen.
“Mr. Dreiser, Mr. Farrell, Mr. Bellow, Mr. Algren, please say hello to Stuart Dybek. He’s one of yours” wrote the Village Voice in their review of Coast of Chicago. As much as Dybek deserves a seat in this pantheon, never do Bellow and Farrell receive “phantasmagoric” as critical praise. No one categorizes them under magical realism or fantasy; Chicago’s literary canon tends to be known for its gritty verisimilitude, the bravura portraits of luckless grifters and well-meaning hustlers. Dybek unearths hardships of a more personal, but also universal, kind: loneliness, impermanence, fatigue. While his peers’ dream sequences are weighed down by symbolism, Dybek leaves his unmoored, conjuring images of a city that “seemed to realize our dreams of it.” These are some of Dybek’s most vivid passages, revealing a surreal element of Chicago not often found on the page—scenes of a city I recognize from my childhood. A flock of birds flying around and around my high school, winding in spirals as though pushed by a leaf-blower. A horse taking a spectral journey down Clybourn Ave., past the shuttered Finkl forge, en route to its barn.
If Dybek champions any group it is not the poor or disenfranchised but the lonely. When his insomniac characters—dreamers, after all, are always the restless ones—find themselves on the sidewalks at night, they feel a sense of desertion. So they wait for a car to come along, offering a ride. They get a table at a 24-hour diner. They find a bar where retired Bears players sit at the counter, nursing beers and waiting for close.
“Whatever else dreams may be,” Dybek has written, “they make for conversation.” One thing I learned from Writers Dreaming is that many authors exchange dreams with their spouses upon waking up. Some also keep dream journals, but it’s been the practice of trading dreams with their loved ones that has lasted them throughout their careers.
In Dybek’s “Nighthawks” almost every section is set around an hour of waking. Two characters in Gold Coast rouse simultaneously in a room full of windows on the 37th floor (“Why are we both awake to see this,” the woman asks). A man in Laughter paces a bedroom while his girlfriend laughs in her sleep. In the sections told in first person, the narrator wonders about other people’s dreams: as a boy he sees homeless in the alley below his window and wonders “where they disappeared to, where they slept at night, and what they dreamed” and as a man he sits in his office early in the morning, imagining lovers as they rise. The waking lovers is a vision he returns to often, an intimacy he hopes upon everyone.
Dybek’s work, often erotic and always full of longing, captures this same intimacy. The narrator usually sets out selfishly, hoping to process what he has seen, come to terms with what he has lost. But all good stories start this way. Even Scheherazade began hers selfishly, for survival—only in the silence at the end of each story did she and the king lay together, spending the short remainder of the night in one another’s arms.
Photo credits: Vivian Maier; Joe & Jeanette Archie