In this collection of interrelated, multigenerational stories, A Kind of Dream, Kelly Cherry explores themes of family, creativity and mortality. Though it is the third of a trilogy, preceded by My Life and Dr. Joyce Brothers and The Society of Friends: Stories, A Kind of Dream is intended to stand alone and self-contained, as its separate narratives and varied points of view eventually resolve themselves into the consciousness of one character, Nina, a writer of some repute who is facing the end of her life.
What a life it has been! Nina has adopted and raised her 14-year-old niece’s daughter, Octavia, who, as a child, suffers trauma when she witnesses a beloved librarian gunned down by a madman but goes on to become a passionate artist and single mother to the precocious, spirited and biracial Callie. The niece, BB, having fled from Wisconsin to California, becomes a celebrated film star married to an equally successful director, but suffers personal tragedy as a desperately longed-for child dies shortly after birth, causing her to seek a reunion with the daughter (Octavia) she had abandoned 26 years earlier. In middle age, Nina marries Palmer, a historian and professor, who gratefully begins a second life when his first wife leaves him for a woman, throwing him into a vortex of self-doubt. Assorted neighbors, acquaintances, forbears and pets drift through these stories to form a composite portrait of this artist, Nina, as she negotiates pancreatic cancer and makes the transition from this world to the next.
If some of these incidents carry a whiff of soap opera, Cherry brings to them a poetic sensibility, a sincerity of purpose and a distinctiveness of vision that strive to transcend the trite and the mawkish. She begins with a prologue, “On Familiar Terms,” that in brief and vivid vignettes introduces the many characters that become familiar and more fully developed in the subsequent stories. The prologue may be more accessible, less elusive to those who have read Cherry’s earlier volumes, but for those who have not, a judicious strategy might be to reread it after finishing the collection in order to bring Cherry’s literary landscape into clearer, sharper focus.
The eight tales and the epilogue that follow vary in style, content and length. (The shortest runs three pages; the longest, 26.) One of the most compelling is “The Only News That Matters,” in which Conrad, a character who turns out to be tangential to Nina’s experience—he’s a neighbor and a colleague of Palmer’s—obsessively reads The New York Times, watches CNN and MSNBC and keeps a journal, Harper’s Magazine “Findings”-style, month by month, on the most noteworthy (usually cataclysmic) events. This fixation on the present is his way of suppressing a tragic event in his past, of repressing his grief and taking an odd sort of comfort in news, however awful, of more universal significance. “So many current events, so little comprehension of the self,” the narrator comments. Only by confronting his past and giving full expression to sadness and loss can Conrad be fully present to those he loves now.
It is this kind of insight into human nature, Cherry’s understanding of how our formative experiences, our connections to others and our knowledge of ourselves play out over time, that gives her book wisdom and pathos. The character BB, for instance, is particularly well rendered; she is drawn with precision and individuality and defies any preconceptions one may have of either teen mothers or Hollywood stars. Far from being sorry for herself or spoiled or entitled, she acknowledges that any success she has had is due to good fortune, and any suffering due to her own bad choices. Her patience, grace and resilience in “The Autobiography of My Mother(s),” in which she returns to Nina and Octavia without apology or self-pity or self-flagellation, lift the story safely out of the pit of melodrama into which the subject matter might have caused it to topple and infuse it instead with admirable, clear-eyed, matter-of-fact authenticity.
Alas, not all the stories manage quite so successfully to avoid sentimentality and contrivance. A vision of being guided into heaven in lively and philosophical conversation with the dogs one has raised in one’s lifetime, or a character’s definition of love as “two people trying to walk side by side on a busy sidewalk,” may put off readers who bristle at any trace of the maudlin. But these touches emerge naturally from the characters’ experiences and worldviews. Cherry is true to the people who inhabit her fiction. She treats her characters without condescension, and honors in them even what outsiders might see as limitations.
This is especially true of Nina, who after all is a writer of fiction and who invites the question of fiction as autobiography in “Faith, Hope and Clarity,” which examines the process and craft of writing. If the other stories are meant to represent Nina’s life work, then questionable stylistic choices like the occasional cliché (“stopped in her tracks,” “a dime a dozen”), or the labored metaphor (“Lightning slashed the sky the way Tony Perkins had slashed Janet Leigh in ‘Psycho’”) or the infelicitous stereotype (a Japanese businessman actually says things like, “Velly interesting” and “Ahso”) are functions of the character (Nina), not the writer (Cherry).
Indeed, when read as a collection of narratives that the character, Nina, has conjured, A Kind of Dream becomes a richer and more complex work than when read otherwise, but because Cherry does not explicitly invoke Nina’s point of view until the eighth of the 10 pieces, her intent is unclear. Yet in “Faith, Hope and Clarity,” Nina uses her own name as the name of a character, and quotes a writer named Phillip Routh (not Roth, we are cautioned): “The main purpose of one’s double was to show you yourself or what you’re about to become.” Whether or not Nina is Cherry’s doppelgänger or avatar, what is clear is the kinship Cherry feels with her, even as Nina contemplates death. “The dead are not all dead,” Nina writes. “They are alive and well and having a riotous time in your own mind.” So, it seems, are the imaginary figures that populate A Kind of Dream.