Matthew Sharpe’s The Sleeping Father is two novels in one—an imploding-family masterpiece every bit as heart-piercing as The Corrections, and a stylistically thrilling inquiry into the weight of words. It’s a treasure-house of gleaming deadpan sentences (sample chapter-spanning juxtaposition: “They had a nice time on the couch until the sun went down,” followed by “Three hours before summer arrived in California, it arrived in Connecticut”). It’s sad, to the degree that this reader instinctively closed his eyes right at the moment it became clear something very ugly was about to happen. It’s resplendent with aching absurdities, word salads, inspired semicolon deployment, golden-eared teenage monologues. It’s the best thing I hope to read all year—and if it isn’t, this will be a very good year indeed.
The titular not-all-there paterfamilias is Bernard Schwartz, a divorced copywriter whose unwitting intake of a contraindicated drug sends him into a coma. When he emerges, his speech is a mess of gnomic utterances and weirdly poetic circumlocutions (asking for a cigarette: “Get me—lung—fire—white—smoke—tube”). Sharpe effortlessly shifts between the perspectives of those in and around the Schwartz family, but his most indelible creation is Chris, Bernie’s loving 17-year-old son. Paul Robeson fan, would-be screen saver mogul, and inheritor of his father’s formerly flourishing sense of irony, Chris alternately jokes and lashes out in hyperarticulate bursts. Endearing and infuriating, he possesses a knee-jerk misogyny (especially toward his father’s doc, Lisa) that barely masks a confused plea for intimacy.
His best friend, Frank Dial (“one of five blacks matriculated at the Bellwether High School for Upper Middle Class Caucasians”), has “a word for everything, and often not a nice one”; Chris, for his part, has “a stern principle about accuracy and honesty in speech that he said he took pride in not living up to.” Frank diligently keeps a notebook entitled Everything in the World, in which he records the curiosities and outrages of their suburban universe—e.g., Things that look like things that you already know what they look like. When a racist bully destroys it, Frank starts a fresh one: Everything I Hate. (Sharpe’s beguiling 2000 debut novel, relating the sentimental education of a sixth-grader who moves to New York with her female teacher/lover, was brightly called Nothing Is Terrible.)
As Sharpe’s young protagonists—and here we include Chris’s sober-minded younger sister, Cathy—muddle through their assorted griefs, they all look to language for answers. Frank’s book—any book—is a way of containing the world, coordinates stretched across the void. Chris wishes his father would dispense fatherly advice, the kind that “came in numbered lists and started with words like ‘Always,’ or ‘Never,’ or ‘Remember,’ or ‘Son.’ ”
Words promise security, but they always fall short. Thus from the sibilant traffic jam of an opening (“Chris Schwartz’s father’s Prozac dosage must have been incorrect”) to the “brain damage round-robin” that Chris imagines sharing with his father, Sharpe boldly foregrounds both the antic possibilities and million immutable agonies of language, so that form and feeling shadow each other across the pages. He uses repetition, incremental variation, go-for-broke catalogs—as incantation, litany, curse, symptom; as infinitely extendable punchline. In one of the book’s sharpest scenes, Chris attempts to teach his father the surrealist game of exquisite corpse (“It’s for your aphasia and my amusement”): “How this works is I name a part of speech, like noun or verb or adjective, then we each write one of whatever part of speech I just named at the top of our strips of paper.”
The end result, when the players uncover their entries, should be a pair of zany sentences. But the word-impoverished Bernie “neither understood Chris’s instructions nor could he identify the different parts of speech,” and they resort to “a modified version . . . in which they took turns saying nouns to each other.” Later, Chris tries to clarify between the general and the specific. After divvying up the universe into 31 categories, he tries to explain how a tree can be both a category and an individual thing. He advises that Bernie point as well as talk. “Another way to do it would be to give the tree a specific name.” “Like what?” “Shirley.” Father and son embark on an orgy of naming—animals, blades of grass, houses, clouds, and “When the sky was dark, they named the darkness.” It’s my favorite literary take on the divine prerogative since the increasingly forgetful denizens of Macondo started putting instructions on their animals.
But failure is beautiful, too, and in the end it’s all we have. Even as the characters strive for precision, meanings can be elusive. In a mind-bending move, Sharpe slyly exploits Bernie’s part-of-speech confusion, essentially infecting the reader with it. Try to pin down the parts of speech as this chapter-capping sentence unfolds: “It was real awkward divorced family comforting.” The Sleeping Father is genuine sui generis genius comic family novel writing.