What resonates after we wake from our dreams? Not simply the weird event, since what feels weird in a dream is not always the same as in real life: in the dream you are very distressed that your bus is taking a wild detour; you are not at all bothered that you are wearing your pyjamas to work.
Nor is it solely dreams’ preternatural qualities: your dreaming self’s new physical or mental capacities – to read minds or switch bodies – or leaps of understanding. You somehow know, in the dream, that the owl is your mother. Or, you do not know why you must run across that field, but you know you must.
What stays is the feeling. Why you felt fear or exhilaration might go unexplained, but because so much goes unexplained, what remains is the sense that, though you have descended into a new layer of meaning – you have seen something or someone in a new light – you have still only skipped over the dream’s surface. There is something even deeper there, touched only momentarily.
Jacob Wren’s latest novel cannot be explained away as “all just a dream,” that old, rightly maligned plot twist, though it presents a waking reality that feels consistently dreamlike.
A novel of this type presents a challenge to a reviewer, since when we ask what a novel is about, we mean to ask after its characters, their dilemmas, the setting, some plot. And Polyamorous Love Song can be described in this way. The time is roughly the present: one chapter jumps back to the Weimar Republic, but most of the events take place in the post-9/11 West. A loosely connected collection of artists and revolutionaries (these roles are not always distinct) push their respective movements against the twin evils of creative compromise and the neoliberal police state. The events often combine sex and violence: a deadly, sexually transmitted virus infects only those on the political right; a character sexualizes the mascot-clad members of an underground social-liberation movement as they lose chunks of flesh and fur in a gun-battle with police.
Freud warned against confusing a dream’s manifest and latent content, its literal subject matter for its underlying truth. That’s worthy literary advice as well. The problem with the above description is that while it is true, it doesn’t give an entirely accurate representation of what Polyamorous is, since it is also a book in open revolt against these elements as sources of meaning. Here is a world ordered by the logic of dreams, of intuitive knowledge and uncanny coincidence, one where it is difficult to find the solid ground of the novel’s reality, even from the first line. Here are the opening words of chapter one: “And my theory about professional artists was as follows […].” That opening conjunction, “and,” is a grammatical non sequitur. Characters receive placeholder names like “Filmmaker A” or we are told that “Paul” is not Paul’s real name. A chapter ridicules your typical war-drama Oscar bait simply by providing a synopsis: plot as weakness.
In many other works, this shifting, uncertain nature might be considered a negative, which speaks to the dominance of realism as our go-to aesthetic. But Polyamorous is not a realist novel. It’s nonlinear and fragmentary. It’s unabashedly metafictional: one narrator is named “Jacob Wren”; whole sections of the narrative are introduced as fictions, whether dreams or stories or films.
Are these just postmodernist games? To put aside the easiest criticism, it might be non-linear, but it isn’t slapdash. The table of contents reveals a precise parabolic structure. And the meta doesn’t come at the cost of the fiction: even when a chapter begins “This is a film,” this framing device is forgotten soon after. Even the use of multiple narrators follows Jung’s subjective approach to dream interpretation, in which every person in a dream represents an aspect of the dreamer’s self. Repetition – several books within the book bear the title A Dream for the Future and a Dream for Now; events from dreams and fiction recur in “real” life – gives a sense of a greater organizing structure or consciousness, not to mention déjà vu.
Polyamorous Love Song is a dream-like novel about the meaning and value of dreams, a convention-busting novel about breaking social and aesthetic norms. Wren has successfully married content and form, but it is important to remember to what end. Form is prescriptive. The value of a polyamorous love song would be the new kinds of love stories it would allow us to tell. This Polyamorous Love Song is dark, murky, anarchistic, but also deeply aspirational – a form to better reflect the conflicting desires of our lives and our dreams.
Jade Colbert reviews small-press books for The Globe and Mail.