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Sarah Shun-Lien Bynumís magical debut

The Lewis Carroll photograph that graces the jacket of Madeleine Is Sleeping is a fitting image for Sarah Shun-Lien Bynumís elegant debut novel. In it, a child knight on a rocking horse vanquishes two other boys with an extremely long lance as an aloof girl princess stares at the viewer with adult matter-of-factness, the tip of the lance just touching her white dress. Dreamy, playful, and murkily erotic, the photo draws one in just as surely as Bynumís lush, mesmerizing sentences pull readers into a circular narrative populated by fantastical characters right out of Aliceís Wonderland.

We enter this world through the dreams of Madeleine, a young girl living in a French village sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century. Caught in a deep, unreachable sleep, Madeleine is a bit of a curiosity herself ó and an ideal conduit for our focus as Bynumís narrative blurs the distinction between dream and reality. In rich, concise chapters of prose poetry, we meet Matilde, who "must gather up her fat just as another woman gathers up her skirts, daintily pinching it between her fingers and hooking it over her wrists." Then thereís Charlotte, the young wife of a musician, who can play herself like a viol, and Joseph Pujol, who can fart an impressive range of animal noises and musical tunes. (Performing as "Le Petomane," Pujol was a real-life figure in fin-de-siècle Paris.)

Eschewing the traditional, plot-driven trajectory, Bynumís story moves back and forth in time and in and out of various points of view. Along the way, there are more than a few meta-fictional nods to the nature of storytelling and the fluidity of language. When Madeleineís mother complains to Matilde that she canít decipher the sighs and smiles of her sleeping daughter, the fat woman pulls a notebook from her cleavage. "I have filled a volume, she says, describing small and mysterious signs. I have yet to see the pattern, but I know that it will emerge. . . . One day I will be leafing through my book, and suddenly the signs will become sensible. They will reveal themselves as a language, a story. That is what I am waiting for."

The story, such as it is, tracks Madeleineís journey from her village to a camp of performing Gypsies to the home of a wealthy, decadent widow who assembles a kind of sideshow for her own pleasure. As her contribution, Madeleine loudly spanks the bare bottom of M. Pujol while a photographer, Adrien, records the scene. Much to the flatulent manís dismay, his true talent is of little interest to the widow. But Madeleine and Adrien are smitten. The three form a lopsided triangle of desire, pining after M. Pujol when he runs off to a hospital that specializes in the study of "aberrant behaviors and conditions."

The unusual physical qualities of Bynumís characters offer ample fodder for lit-crit analysis of the body and gender and its connection to creativity. Madeleineís hands, for example, are dunked in a bucket of lye and burned into paddle-like appendages when sheís caught pleasuring the village idiot ó a fact she turns to her advantage when it comes to spanking M. Pujol. The pain that Madeleine inflicts, the widow explains, is a comfort to the flatulent man: "You are ministering, with your maimed hands, to his every suffering."

That said, you donít need to bend your brain around Roland Barthes or Jacques Derrida to appreciate this novelís beauty and intelligence. In one of the bookís most enchanting passages, Madeleine, in the person of the moon, gazes down on Adrien and M. Pujol sleeping together and "finds what she has been searching for: a head resting on anotherís chest, his pale face loosened in sleep. He breathes deeply. He does not moan. His head rises and falls with the otherís inhalations, and the movement is as gentle, as infinite, as that of a fishing boat lulled by the sea." Bizarre characters and an experimental structure are two of the most noticeable qualities of Madeleine Is Sleeping, but its many pleasures can also be found in such simple moments.

Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum reads this Tuesday, September 21, at 7 p.m. at Brookline Booksmith, 279 Harvard Street in Coolidge Corner; call (617) 566.6660. On September 22 at 7:30 p.m., she reads at Newtonville Books, 296 Walnut Street in Newton; call (617) 244-6619.

Issue Date: September 17 - 23, 2004
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