Deprivation; or, Benedetto furioso: an oneiromancy is a long title that alludes to literary works and larger thematic concepts, but ultimately doesn't engage with these referents substantively. It is thus an absolutely perfect title for this book. While Deprivation has some likable characters and engaging language, what it's missing is a sense of plot or an adequate replacement for one, a meaningful engagement with its speculative element, and a sense of the book's unique and specific contribution to the traditions it builds on.
The deprivation in question primarily refers to our protagonist Ben's severe and prolonged sleep deprivation. After graduating college, young gay comparative literature major Ben has taken a crappy first job. The problem is, the job's in Boston, while his former college is in Rhode Island, and so too his flat, which he's loath to part with in a way he can't fully explain to himself. Ben's nasty commute has him so strung out that he's having hallucinatory dreams he can barely parse from reality. Deprivation could also refer to Ben's deep and unmet need for love—a need he seeks to negotiate through a series of erotic and emotional encounters with very different men. Deprivation might also describe the recession taking place in the background of the novel, which is set in the 1990s. This element is, obviously, achingly topical.
According to various reviews, people who really enjoyed the novel seemed to appreciate its prose and its fluid interweaving of dream and reality. To begin with the prose, I'd agree that it's the key strength of the novel. The word choice is not baroque, but neither is it pedestrian. Well-observed quotidian and sensory details create a rich, immersive reading experience with occasional flashes of sharp poignancy. But it's not for everyone. The very lines I picked out as particularly true, such as this:
Their first kiss, like all first kisses it was fleeting, shocking, so anticipated it was scarcely recognizable as a deliberate action but seemed as much an accident as the collision, predicted long ago, of two planetary objects on intersecting orbits. (p. 17)
felt purple and sour to the friend I read them to. Indeed the passages the book seems most proud of, such as this fragment of a dream sequence (which makes it into the blurb material):
[Ben] wished to be a paladin. He wished to mount Ariosto's hippogriff and fly to the moon. He wished to sing a Baroque aria of stunning, shocking brilliance, bringing the audience to its feet roaring, "Bravo! Bravissimo!" He wished to run mad for love. (p. 239)
struck me in the way the remark about first kisses struck my friend, and felt rather sophomoric and embarrassing. As a side note, I also find the book's habit of constantly using the names of characters in dialogue really grating. If we're still within a conversation where that name's already been said four times, we know who you are, Harriet Jones.
Though I generally like the rhythm and texture of the book, I don't think the prose is quite strong enough to serve as the core of a reading experience—and it should bear that great weight here, because Deprivation presents itself primarily as an immersion in language and dream, rather than a journey along a narrative arc. But the prose, while solid, is not superlative. I'd like to see all genre work equal or better the prose in this book as a general standard, and I don’t think that's a terribly unrealistic ask. The fact that it's a pleasure and a relief to deal with a writer who demonstrably knows how to handle a sentence and a paragraph (if not, here, a plot arc) is inexplicable and sad.
The other element readers particularly seemed to enjoy, the novel's blending of dream and wakefulness (which prompts the book's consideration here as a piece of speculative fiction), is fluidly accomplished. The central dream arc involves Ben finding three illegal Italian immigrants in a Boston slum and bringing them home to live with him. Young Dario comes as a lover, and the whole assemblage—including Dario's older brother Laud and young sister Gioia—comes as something of a substitute family. This allows Ben to surround himself with people who care for him, and to be a carer or provider in turn. Ben himself points this out when relating their story to his father. It's clear that this faux family is, among other things, simultaneously a means of escaping and of dealing with the tensions lurking in Ben's relationships with his parents. Ben has other intense dreams that are unrelated to the family, and these are well-rendered visual passages. However, they seem to have less potential to comment on the story's other narrative threads, to shape consequences and meaning in the story, or to create characters who can do so, than the Dario arc.
I can't help but feel that the Dario dream arc is not sufficiently explored or concluded. Ben's psychoanalysis—he concludes he's created a dream family who need him to help take care of them, and that this has something to do with his own longing to become a fully realized adult—is sound. But it's also rather easy, and lacks the complexities, loose ends and multiplicity of meanings I feel the strange trio has the potential to yield, and which dream interpretation usually does yield. Ben is, of course, not necessarily right about his own dream-creations. It's tempting to imagine that he isn't. However, I'm not sure that the text supports that assumption, as the novel doesn't sufficiently push Ben's interaction with these fragments-of-himself-or-are-they. The dream people yield very easily to the rough and ready explanation, and don't put up much resistance. While all the book's dreams are colorful fantasies, they lack the essential strangeness of dreams, what the Freud Museum calls the "'kernel' of the dream which cannot be further analysed" and what Freud himself called "a tangle of dream-thoughts which cannot be unraveled . . . the dream's navel, the spot where it reaches down into the unknown." The possibilities the trio open are both too limited and too easily foreclosed.
Ben tells his father about the dreams, believing that, in doing so, he is destroying them and moving forward himself. This both does and doesn't destroy the phantoms. We see Gioia dead, and in the same nightmare Dario savagely attacks Ben. In a later dream, we see the trio alive, in Italy with their mother. This last dream of the trio indicates that they are departing Ben's life forever. But this decision to banish the family is undertaken without much thought or great angst, and seems to have few emotional consequences. The family never seems very real to Ben, either in the sense of a liminal-fantasy style doubt as to their actual existence or in the sense in which the shared dream of a child is real to the vicious couple in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and is really destroyed by sharing this dream with outsiders. Because Ben doesn’t care enough (about this family or much of anything), the family's exile from the text is swift and unfelt.
The reader will crave a greater emotional involvement and sense of consequence than the execution of the Italian trio can offer. This might seem difficult for a non-traditional plot arc predicated on dreams to deliver, but it's certainly been done before. In, for example, Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled (published in 1995, so about the time this was written and is set), we also drift between a nested series of dreams. A great deal of emotional weight adheres to the various problems running through the dreamscape, and because of this, the strange, loose cataclysm at the novel's end feels as though it has some of the substantive satisfaction of a traditional plot’s climax, and some of the consequences. For all the dreamlike quality of the narrative, because of this feeling of climax and consequences we have a sense of the novel's events having mattered. This sense of an ending is thus able to prompt something like a denouement, with our side-characters progressing or just moving on. Our protagonist in The Unconsoled severs his relationship with the novel's setting and characters, and drifts away himself.
Deprivation could accomplish as much with its dream-work, and yet sidesteps the opportunity in favor of a sudden end to its dreams and a less involving conclusion in which the dream characters have no part. What has it mattered, to Ben or to the dream characters, that they existed? If their core function is to force Ben out of his reactive complacency into a world of adult obligations, how do they accomplish this in a way that the figures and events of Ben's real life don’t?
Jeffers suggests in a recent interview that he thinks the book calls into question whether any of its elements are real. I'm not sure the book does the work to unbalance its realism—when we're in the "real world" in Deprivation, we are there. There are certainly no rhetorical spinning-tops à la Inception to problematize the issue. And perhaps this is a personal contention, but I have a hard time thinking of a more boring question than the old "Is this the real life?/Is this just fantasy?" chestnut, unless it's immediately followed by "Caught in a laaaandslide," etc.
The novel's real-world characters are well drawn, and often economically conveyed. I feel I know a good amount about, and am interested in, most of the secondary characters. Ben himself is fairly engaging. I enjoyed his workmate and friend Jane. I could do with a more lengthy and thorough handling of Ben's family’s compelling issues, but the fact that I want that means they’re well established. Even Ben's Bevy of Boys, who should blend into an anonymous slurry, manage all right for themselves. I have a relatively distinct sense of them all: Neddy, the bike messenger Ben strikes up a sexual relationship with; Liam the Irish Fling; the various ex-boyfriends in the background; Kenneth, the new friend and would-be roommate with whom Ben has sexual tension; and Paul, Ben's beloved Italian teacher from prep school (not forgetting Dario and Laud, the Imaginary Italians).
The aforementioned bevy of boys gets up to a fair amount of fade-to-black sexual hijinks, which like the dreams seem important to the novel, and like the dreams don't really contribute enough to my understanding of characters to justify the extent of their presence. That's not to say I object to sex scenes unless they’re incredibly justified, but it’s a bit strange they don't do more, in the way that it’d be a bit strange if the story made time for scenes of our protagonist and every male character who has more than one scene in the novel cooking, or discussing cooking, or thinking about cooking, or thinking about each other's hands in terms of their capacity to cook, or coyly leading up to cooking, and then nothing really meaningful happening during or as a result of all this random cooking. Additionally, these particular sex scenes seem strangely perched between the cliches of sex in literary fiction (style-heavy, serious, not titillating) and erotica. They're too emotionless, distant, and quick to rush you away from the action to function effectively as erotica, though. The many, many descriptions of young or young-seeming male bodies remind me quirkily of late-'90s gay porn of the Freshmen ilk: foreplay-heavy and fucking-lite, back when it was possible to use the word "prick" erotically rather than just comically.
The choice to write characters in a recession is unusual and effective. Jeffers shows a variety of class statuses. Many of his characters are temporary workers, work in lousy and tenuous positions for the temp agency itself, are white-collar unemployed, or are in insecure menial work like Neddy. These are contrasted with the safer position of an older generation of professionals, as represented by Ben's parents. The jobs Jeffers gives the younger characters directly expose them to the recession’s pressures. This decision shows us economically insecure people, whose insecurity is of a modern, relatable kind. This is not a position with many literary models for identification or valorization. People suffering the worst material and psychological effects of a modern recession can't feel like they belong to the legacy of the Dickensian deserving poor, for example. We have few books that describe what poverty can look like now: you can now have a college degree and a will to work and still not be able to reliably feed yourself. It's necessary and valuable (as well as simply fresh and interesting) to have a book that looks at the psychology of Great Recessions: at what they do to characters and societies.
These firm characters, the invigorating discussion of recession, this strong prose sensibility, and the visual quality of the dream sequences all feel like the strong basis for a plot that never arrives. All the work is in place for it, including the character conflicts and the thematic issues that might prompt a plot. But the dynamic power that will come to pull on these energies and disrupt and change this established world pulls a Godot and never arrives.
According to its author, Deprivation is in conversation with Ariosto's Orlando furioso (thus the title nod), chivalric romantic epics generally, Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, H. P. Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, and a host of other texts. His references are somewhat strange choices. While they're all relatively important titles, they're not very widely read—they're almost self-consciously big but obscure. The other thing about the novels Jeffers claims Deprivation is in conversation with is that they aren't really the texts that leap to mind when I think about positioning this book. When I consider this book's dream-content, I do go back to The Unconsoled. For a surreal narrative embedded in a strong sense of place (Boston, even), I would look to the excellent It Happened in Boston? For a strong prose line and sense of quotidian detail, and even a depiction of gay experience (of course in a masked form), we should probably turn to Proust, who Jeffers himself evokes in the same interview in a sideways manner, in a discussion of his own stylistic preferences.
The thing about these comparisons is, I don't get a strong sense of what Deprivation wants to do and be, of its project as opposed to the projects of these other books. Deprivation needs to have its own sense of identity and purpose as a novel, separate from its casting out in these several directions and, unsurprisingly, not beating them at their own games. It needs to have a project distinct from that of these other works, and to realize it, to make them comparable to it. Such efforts might not result in a new Remembrance of Things Past, but no one needs Deprivation to wedge itself into the canon: we just want it to declare and then to be itself, and it never really does.
Erin Horáková (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a southern American writer. She lives in London with her partner, and is working towards her PhD in Comparative Literature at Queen Mary. Erin blogs, cooks, and is active in fandom.