This is not how it happened, but actually it is. I tossed and turned, unable to sleep. I got up and went into the other room, so not to disturb my wife and dog, both of them sleeping soundly. I turned on the light and picked up a book from a tall pile that has been sitting on the floor by my cluttered desk, and which I have been working my way through, though not as steadily as I would like. I begin reading, secretly hoping (or not so secretly hoping) that it would help me go to sleep. Time goes by. More time goes by. I am not interested in going back to sleep. I want to finish the book I have in my hands. I am holding A Pillow Book (Canarium Books, 2016) by Suzanne Buffam. The irony is not lost on me.
Buffam’s A Pillow Book is a smart, funny, provocative collection of lists, research into pillows and sleeplessness, and details about all kinds of people, including famous insomniacs (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Abraham Lincoln, Tallulah Bankhead, and, of course, Marcel Proust, make appearances). It is a book replete with interesting details, including Buffam’s commentary on The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon, whose writing is woven into this book in imaginative and fanciful ways.
Dreams and anecdotes are recounted. Deadpan humor abounds throughout. Buffam channels Shōnagon as a way of commenting on the original and on her own book: “I now had a vast quantity of paper at my disposal, reports the nonchalant Shōnagon, and I set about filling the notebooks with odd facts, stories from the past, and all sorts of other things, often including the most trivial material.”
Strange things happen, as when the screams and yelling of arguing neighbors intrude upon her and her husband as they’re watching a zombie apocalypse film, resulting in the police showing up. At other times, the writing resists any context except that it is in this book that does not fit any genre: “Tonight my in-laws dropped by with a rolling suitcase full of silk. They are back from their fortieth medical school class reunion in Hyderabad, where they did a little shopping for Her Majesty.” By the time you read “fortieth,” you know you are in for a wild ride and Buffam does not disappoint. Within a short paragraph, she manages to mention “an ostensibly unintentional head butt” and such items as a “plastic King Tut Mask,” a “salwar kameez,” and an “itchy polyester medieval Scottish Disney princess vest.” And yes, it all makes sense just the way a dream does.
Throughout the book, Buffam makes lists under such headings as “Jobs From Hell,” “Questionable Gestures,” “Extinct Languages A To Z,” “Sounds I Don’t Expect To Hear,” and “Incongruous,” which begins, “A vegan in Vegas.” She has a wonderfully wry sense of everyday life, as when she includes under the list “Harder Than It Looks,” “IKEA,” and “Small talk with a psychoanalyst.” Her sense of the commonplace is uncommon, fresh, original. She would probably point out things in a museum that you would never notice, and it would not be in the paintings or statues. Or, perhaps, in some cases, it would.
Buffam writes about herself as if she is closely observing someone else: “I read a message last night from a woman I have yet to meet beyond the dim glow of a list-serv. She lives in Tampa, if memory serves, and won a juried prize last year for a mixed-media meditation on habitat loss across America, including charts, chants, photographs, oral histories, crowdfunded films, and salvaged trash.” This distance enables her to precisely recount all kinds of details: “The jade green pillow on which we sat, I recall, had been cut from coarse raw silk and embroidered with a vivid black pattern of stars inside a narrow band of chartreuse.”
In some places, you experience a pleasant vertigo because it takes time to discern what is and isn’t a dream. I did not dream this book up, however, Suzanne Buffam did. And I am happy to have spent a sleepless night reading it, knowing that I will open it up many more times, and savor the different pleasures it so generously offers.
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