ONE OF CBC BOOKS CANADIAN NONFICTION TO READ IN THE FALL
A poet recounts his experience with madness and explores the relationship between apprehension and imagination.
In the summer of 1977, standing on a roadside somewhere between Dachau and Munich, twenty-two-year-old Mike Barnes experienced the dawning of the psychic break he’d been anticipating almost all his life. “Times over the years when I have tried to describe what followed,” he writes of that moment, “it has always come out wrong.” In this finely wrought, deeply intelligent memoir of madness, its antecedents and its aftermath, Barnes reconstructs instead what led him to that moment and offers with his characteristic generosity and candor the captivating account of a mind restlessly aware of itself.
About the author
Mike Barnes is the author of the novels Catalogue Raisonn? and The Syllabus, the short fiction collections Aquarium -- winner of the 1999 Danuta Gleed Award -- and Contrary Angel, and two poetry collections, Calm Jazz Sea, shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial award, and a thaw foretold. His stories have appeared twice in Best Canadian Stories, three times in The Journey Prize Anthology, and won the Silver Medal for Fiction at the National Magazine Awards. He was the subject of a feature issue of The New Quarterly (Summer 2001) which included an interview and three new stories. In 2008 he released his first non-fiction title, The Lily Pond: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, Myth and Metamorphosis. Formerly a piano teacher, fishing guide, janitor, steelworker, dishwasher, clock salesman, security guard, English teacher, in recent years he has been working as a private tutor. He lives in Toronto.
Excerpt: Sleep is Now a Foreign Country: Encounters with the Uncanny (by (author) Mike Barnes)
On a spring afternoon in 2007, I was lying on the couch in my living room reading Simon Schama’s Power of Art. This chapter was an essay on Picasso’s Guernica. As I read Schama’s account of the German planes appearing in the sky over the Spanish town on April 26 1937, something caused me to look up from the book. The objects in the room, clearly outlined in the spring light, seemed altered somehow, stark yet dubious along their edges. Not quite familiar, either as themselves or as an arrangement of objects. I had a sense of items poised in a museum, absorbing my attention while contriving to escape it utterly. Clear and hunkered as they were, I couldn’t quite see them.
I realized then the date was April 26. The same day as the Guernica attack, exactly seventy years later.
The bombers had appeared in the sky at four p.m. I looked at the homemade wooden clock on the end table. Hand-sawed and painted yellow-green, it has the shape of a tall slim house with no window, and, at its base, a little red door askew on its hinges. The hour hand had dropped below the eave on the right, two-thirds of its way toward the crooked little door. The big hand pointed straight up into the peak of the tall roof. It was four p.m.
For a long instant, like the sustained vibrations of a musical chord, past and present collapsed together like the two ends of an accordioned paper figure. Or more than two: the moment thronged with splintery harmonics. Stretched out, the two sequences—the destruction of a town, which became the subject of a famous painting, which became the subject of an essay; and (reversing things) my reading of the essay about the painting about the destroyed town—were separated by the innumerable twists and folds of seven decades.
Then somehow, with a speed that gave me vertigo, they shut up tight together, without a wafer of space between them.
They overlaid each other like clear transparencies. That was part of the vertigo. As if the intervening seventy years had suddenly gone sheer and negligible. Like wandering (I was looking at the house-clock again) in a building made of glass. A glass construction polished to such speckless transparency that things which ordinary walls and floors and ceilings would keep apart could suddenly loom, merge and blend.
But there was movement in that image. There had to be. In part to account for the lurching, jittery sense I felt lying there. A sense of caged turbulence—wild whirling bounded by absolute stillness—like the frenzy of snowflakes inside a glass-globed paperweight.
A dance, I thought. In a dance you whirl through space without ever leaving the dance. At a given moment someone may be across the ballroom, or right next to you, or in your arms—these positions and others can repeat and alternate. All of these thoughts and comparisons, none of them quite right, none of them exactly wrong, could go on without any disruption to the dance itself. Perhaps they were even part of it. A step, a style of stepping, however ungainly, that I could claim and recognize as my own.
For if the pure exhilaration of this kind of dancing has always come with close echoes of apprehensiveness, it is not just because of its weightlessness and the transparency of its figures, those unmoored glassy possibilities that bring havoc just as easily as redemption to the world of solid sense and obscurity. It is because, once finding myself aswirl again, I have never had the slightest clue when or where or how the dance will end.
After that there was nothing for a few days. Then the first transmissions, widely spaced. The number 70. Lines and circles scratched in dirt. My grandfather’s face. These could be core signals, or peripheral or preliminary, perhaps to test or clear the line. There was no way to tell at this point. I knew by now to do nothing but wait.
The laws of breakdown. Its code. Which you must on no account violate if the breakdown is to be yours (and of what use would another’s be?). Perpetual vigilance is required, the paradox of rigour amid crack-up (which is in fact no paradox but a precondition). What you don’t want above all, the worst betrayal—of the process, of yourself, of life even—is a botched breakdown. One of those tape-and-glue stumble-ons that can simulate recovery, functionality, can even, with a protraction that a Torquemada might flinch from inflicting, extend themselves into a slow-motion suicide lasting seventy years or more, “sadly missed.”
No. (That much you know.)
Eventually the watch will stop. Or you will smash it: that seems daily more likely.
Beyond a stopped watch will be...no time or new time. But not fractured time. Not these splintered and dissolving minutes.
Beware of watch-repairmen. Tinkerers. Parts-replacers. Let the watch break.
(And yet no way to tell, from the first slip-slidings out of time—or the first noticing of them, for who remarks on a few dropped seconds?—how long it will take a watch to break. Days? Weeks? Years? More time than a lifetime affords?
To smash, crash, stop. And become...time-less, bare-wristed? Or tell time true, anew?
Or be tinkered back to passability? Fiddled with and spit-shined by the old, bald man?
No way, ultimately, to know.)
Praise for Sleep is Now a Foreign Country
"Daredevils interested in a bold and singular literary experiment may want to tackle this knotty mind-bender."
—Literary Review of Canada
"For all the ways Barnes’s book is indescribable, this much is true—it is a thing of beauty and courage.”
—Brain Bethune, Toronto Star
“It’s a beautiful book.”
—Manjula Selvarajah, CBC Fresh Air
"Mike Barnes is one of those rare writers who can do it all—in poetry, short fiction, novels, and memoir, he takes readers on nuanced, brainy, powerfully moving journeys."
“The narrative here is winding … Barnes uses this structure to great effect, plunging you into madness with him … This memoir is true art.”
—Alison Manley, The Miramichi Reader
"Mike Barnes’s book Sleep is Now a Foreign Country is lyrically and brilliantly inventive."
—David Gutowski, Largehearted Boy
"An inherently fascinating and engaging read from start to finish."
—Midwest Book Review
“At times memoir, at times dissociative fable, at times personal essay ... the writing maintains breath-close nearness to the perceptions of the narrator ... akin to being in a diving bell with the storyteller, extremely intimate and viscerally suffocating ... culminat[ing] in a feeling of waking from a vivid dream not quite remembered.”
—Micheline Maylor, Quill & Quire
"The volume’s particular magic lies in Barnes’s adept use of free-flowing chronology and hallucinatory language to immerse readers in the depths of his psychosis ... This isn’t easy to forget."
"As riveting as it is terrifying, as mysterious as it is illuminating, Mike Barnes's Sleep is Now a Foreign Country takes us inside the claustrophobic, kaleidoscopic world of madness. Like a sedimentary rock, layers of meaning are stacked upon one another inside its slim pages, building a structure so unlike any other book that you can't put it down without being changed."
—Alicia Elliott, author of A Mind Spread Out on the Ground
“Sleep is Now a Foreign Country is an intricately structured rendering of madness and memory, a mix of hallucination and dense, concrete realism, which only makes the phantasmagoria of illusion all the more poignant. This is an amazing work—supremely intelligent, coolly self-analytical, eerie, melancholy, revelatory and terrifying.”
—Douglas Glover, winner of the Governor-General’s Award for Elle
Praise for Mike Barnes
“Timely, lyrical, tough, accurate.”
—Margaret Atwood on Twitter
“Masterful … The Adjustment League is suspenseful, exquisitely written and—at times—corrosively funny.”
“Fiercely alive, marked by a sharp, unerring eye for detail and a wonderful way with metaphors.”
“Poetically compelling and evocative … The Lily Pond is the ultimate act of recollection.”
—Quill and Quire