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Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

Sarah Shun-lien Bynum lives in Los Angeles and teaches writing and literature at Otis College of Art and Design. Bynum is a graduate of Brown University and the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.


"This was as exciting a story as I remember anyone showing me for years-fresh, imaginative, original, and beautiful."

– Stuart Dybek, author of I Sailed with Magellan

"A luminous debut novel . . . powerful and hauntingly elusive."

– Boston Globe

"Extravagantly imagined . . . a fantasy influenced by writers from Ludwig Bemelmans to Angela Carter."

– New York Times

"Bynum''s boldly original first novel is an allegory of adolescence . . . every page offers something original."

– People Magazine

"Masterful . . . a voice at once sensuous and humorous, mellifluous and matter-of-fact."

– Washington Post Book World



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Madeleine Is Sleeping

The Tension Between Domesticity and Artistry


When I submitted the unsure beginnings of a novel to my writers’ group, the wonderful Idra Novey recommended Madeleine Is Sleeping by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum. I was, am, interested in novels in prose poems. Madeleine Is Sleeping is written as a series of lyrical, impressionistic observations on events or characters that range from a single sentence to a page or page-and-a-half in length. It’s a bildungsroman of sorts: Madeleine has fallen mysteriously into a deep, impenetrable sleep. Without being able to separate dream action from waking reality, the reader follows her as she leaves her provincial French village, joins a gypsy circus, and stumbles into an unexpected triangle of desire.

But in its fractured telling, the story only becomes clear on second read. The novel is more about the savoring of tangential reveries, odd corners and flyaway moments than the propulsion of plot. The inciting incident occurs when Madeleine is caught fondling the village idiot. Her mother dips her hands into a pot of boiling lye and sends her away to a convent. One short paragraph titled “bureaucracy” is given to the revelation and aftermath of Madeleine’s transgression, a single sentence on the same page to the lye. I missed it on first read. Still, the bildungsroman progression was clear, the emotions attending adolescence aptly muddied: The initial pleasure Madeleine, with her bandaged hands, takes in being cared for at the convent; her subsequent escape and discovery that when her bandages are removed, her hands have grown into mitten-like paddles; her determination to use her disfigurement as an acrobat in the circus; her unwitting conversion from victim to victimizer when she is made to paddle another performer, M. Pujol; and her ultimate longing — when this confusion becomes love — for fingers “to touch the soft hair growing there on the back of [M. Pujol’s] neck.”

There are other Freudian metaphors for desire and transformation. Among the circus freaks is Charlotte, who, longing to be touched by her asexual husband in the way that he touches his viol, morphs into a viol, growing black, horse-like hairs down the length of her body. As she unbuttons her bodice and draws a bow across the strings, she tells Madeleine, “Music, more than any other thing in the world, teaches us emotion.” There is the metamorphosis of Matilde, a luxuriously fat woman who inexplicably sprouts two sets of wings and flies up to housetops. An alter-ego for the author, Matilde travels freely between dream and reality, keeping a scientific journal, maintaining that if she meticulously records the details of life, the overall picture will emerge.

Madeleine is Sleeping is a novel that resides in the details. Charlotte’s story is complicated toward the end of the book, its heartbreaking particulars assiduously relayed by Madeleine’s sister, Beatrice, over the course of four sections. Claude, the younger brother, blurts out the ending at the conclusion of the first section, but the reader is rewarded for persisting, even as three interrupting sections cut away from Charlotte’s story. Alas, Beatrice never gets to the end of the story. “The story is too long, Mother interrupts. All those . . . corridors . . . I already know what is going to happen. Claude told us in the beginning.”  Mother is concerned only with the tidy marriage plot she has arranged for Madeleine, which Charlotte’s macabre marriage story quite literally upsets. I won’t be a spoiler like Claude, but ending or no, the rich middle of Charlotte’s story plumbs the tension between domesticity and artistry, speech and silence, and deserves not merely patience, but several re-readings, as it offers a multiplicity of interpretations.

Madeleine’s corridors are wondrous strange. When it’s discovered that not merely Madeleine, but all the girls, have played sex games with the village idiot, he is sent to an insane asylum. There, he mails Madeleine sketches of his brainpan that look like the “moon on its back.” “Conversion” describes how Madeleine’s brothers and sisters make kites from the accumulating drawings, how Mother decorates her preserves with their delicate cranial swirls. When the shared object of their love leaves them, Madeleine and the circus photographer pour over photographs of him. “This image, [the photographer] tells Madeleine, is literally an emanation of M. Pujol: from his body radiates light, which then inscribes itself on the very surface which in turn your gaze now touches.”

M. Pujol’s body emits not merely light, but “the most melancholy sounds [Madeleine has] ever heard: that of the nightingale, the grasshopper, the cuckoo . . . the strange and unearthly emissions reminded her of her home, and she wept.” Lest the novel’s enchantment become too precious, the ethereal is tempered by the body’s humiliations and grotesqueries, the surreal grounded in the sensual. Or rather, Madeleine is Sleeping transcends these divisions. M. Pujol’s musical flatulence is at once farcical and heartrending.

The photographs of M. Pujol were taken for the widow, a rich old libertine who hires the circus to pose in lecherous tableaus for her pleasure. Except the photographs offer her no pleasure. She teases a scientist who interviews her for his study of libertines, “so strenuous were his attempts to manage her perversions, to render them immobile. What you must . . . understand about my predilections (the scientist leans forward: at long last, the secret!) is that my desire does not take; it turns, as milk does.”

Throughout, there are the motifs of desire’s slipperiness, aberrance’s resistance to immobility. The beauty of Shun-Lien Bynum’s vision makes us embrace the strange — what does not fit and is not clear — which seems to me the province of the prose poem. The successful novel in prose poems manages to resist immobility, to open a space for ambiguity. I recently read We the Animals, a novel that similarly refuses the traditional bildungsroman trajectory, that uses the liminal form of the prose poem to get at the fierce space between a family’s power to sustain and destroy.

Through the meticulousness of her language, Shun-Lien Bynum manages to simultaneously inhabit and contain desire, aberrance and transformation. The tension between form and the sublime, the combination of a voice at once extravagant and matter-of-fact, indulgent and constrained, made me think of Anne Carson, whom Shun-Lien Bynum lists among her favorite writers. The artist bildungsroman themes in Madeleine is Sleeping are closest to Autobiography of Red, but I think of Decreation, which searches for, and ultimately explodes, various forms to contain the Sublime — opera librettos, screenplays, poems, oratorios, essays. “Every Exit is an Entrance (A Praise of Sleep),” an essay in which Carson writes about how authors use the space between waking and sleep, seems particularly relevant. Here Carson writes about how To the Lighthouse falls asleep for 25 pages in the middle section, “Time Passes”: “Changes flow over the house of the story and penetrate the lives of the characters while they sleep. These changes are glimpsed as if from underneath; Virginia Woolf’s main narrative is a catalogue of silent bedrooms. . . Down across these phenomena come facts from the waking world, like swimmers stroking by on a night lake. . . . [Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay, having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]” In Madeleine is Sleeping, the major plot points similarly “float past the narrative like the muffled shock of a sound heard while sleeping.” The novel’s emotional and poetic density is both allayed and heightened by sleep pauses, recurring pages containing a single sentence: Madeleine stirs in her sleep.   

Carson goes on to discuss The Voyage Out, in which Woolf writes of six people traveling to South America on a boat, afloat between waking and sleep. “The dreams were not confined to her indeed, but went from one brain to another. They all dreamt of each other that night, as was natural, considering how thin the partitions were between them and how strangely they had been lifted off the earth to sit next each other in mid ocean.” The characters in Madeleine is Sleeping meld in the same porous way, all of them manifestations of adolescent fears and scars and becoming. Madeleine is Sleeping uses the space between sleep and waking to traverse the liminal territory of adolescence, the space between disfigurement and beauty, the bawdy and the holy, abjection and attraction, asceticism and ecstasy, impotence and power.

In Shun-Lien Bynum’s second novel, Ms. Hempel Chronicles, this sepia­-tinted dream of pseudo-Victorians and fairytale grotesques gives way to a linked collection of stories about a seventh grade English teacher that resemble personal essays in their retrospective composure and resignation. Ms. Hempel puzzles over her reverse metamorphosis, from parti-­colored butterfly to monochromic caterpillar:

“Mr. Dunne, her college counselor, was the one who first noticed the discrepancy. Impressive scores, mediocre grades. A specialist was consulted, a series of tests administered, and a medication prescribed. The bitter pills, her father used to call them. The prescription made her hands shake a little, but that wore off after awhile. And then: a shy, newfound composure. Her mother entrusted her with the holiday newsletter; she wrote film reviews for the university newspaper. She had a nice way with words, a neat way of telling a story.

To her ears, though, her stories sounded smushed. As if they had been sat upon by accident. None of the interesting parts survived.” She remembers the story she told at her father’s funeral: “Beautiful was not what she intended.  Her story was not about safety and concern and anxious attentions.  It was a tale of danger, intrigue; a story from the days before her medicine. . . . This was the story she wanted to tell. Then how did something altogether different emerge?  Something she didn’t even recognize as her own.”

My first book was my Monster in a Box. I finished the first version at 27 in LA, where I’d moved for love and where love and I didn’t seem to make sense. I wrote in my underwear in a roach-ridden hotbox of an apartment; I wrote from inside the wound, unspeakably sad and angry and alone, Baldwin, Woolf, and Carole Maso my closest friends. A large part of this book was about my father’s entrenchment in an authoritarian cult that talked in circles about Rules and Tools, so I had a vested interest in breaking formal rules. I returned to New York alone and dropped this unruly 600-page beast on the desk of an agent who called it an “epic quest full of moral force and luminosity,” who feared that if I cut it down it would “shrink from a big, tawny lion to a skinny cat” and believed we only had to find someone who let it speak to them. I didn’t find that someone and in the years that followed, this first book went through countless visions and revisions. I worked on it for too long, long after its rawness had dissipated. I whittled it down to a skinny cat I hardly recognized as my own.

I don’t devalue the understanding of craft and editing I gained, but I am trying, in the gestation of this second book, to unlearn some of the rules, to locate the intersection between the dream and the analyst. Since it’s the dream that must first be protected, I’m grateful for the unruly extravagance of Madeleine is Sleeping, its courageous insistence upon the strange, misshapen magic of claiming one’s own cracked voice.

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