Told in a series of elliptical tableaux and bound by stream of consciousness, Roberta Allen’s The Dreaming Girl is an example of everything that shouldn’t work, and yet it does. Like a literary descendant of Duras, Allen places her unnamed narrator in an exotic Central American limbo that propels her mind into a mesmerizing state somewhere between memory and fantasy. Traveling alone, the narrator eagerly invites the company of a stranger who is referred to only as “the German.” “She had wanted to meet somebody. It was lonely traveling by herself. Since the last one left her she has been lonely.”
The minimalist surrealism of Allen’s prose is perfectly suited to transposing into words the inexpressible wonder of being at the mercy of the Central American climate. “The rains make her mind murky. When it rains, she sails within herself like a boat that has lost direction; she drifts. The rains haven’t started yet tonight. But even on the clearest nights, the stars are vague, as though they aren’t sure they want to be there.”
As the pair travel across the jungle landscape, their physical love affair becomes part of the dense jungle scenery—the dogs milling around the dining tables, the insects multiplying faster than the German can shoo them from their bed—until finally it becomes tantalizingly difficult to know how much of the dreamlike imagery is inspired by their passion, and how much of the narrator’s desire is fed not by an actual romance but by her willful retreat into fantasy. Even after the German rejects her, the woman continues to pursue him across the country, as well as in her dreaming. It becomes clear that she possesses an insatiable desire to numb herself through travel, sex, and daydreams. “She is twenty-one. She is never going back. . . . She needs to see something that will make her forget . . . she needs to see something big and dramatic.”
A more lucid variation on the incantatory, erotic opening of D.M. Thomas’s The White Hotel, The Dreaming Girl succeeds as a portrait of sexual longing and, as the girl’s fate floats ambiguously in a pool of water, the merciless insignificance of our species.