Sleeper’s Wake

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John Wraith’s penis is a neat literary device. It provides character depth and motivation, and is central to every plot twist in the book.

John Wraith is at war with an unlikely, but very worthy, adversary: his penis. In this battle he joins a number of notable literary anti-heroes—Alexander Portnoy and Humbert Humbert probably chief among them—whose dicks are divining rods for locating fleeting pleasure and lasting trouble.

At forty-six, Wraith is virile to a fault, his implacable horniness getting him into all manner of disaster. And it’s real disaster—the marriage-ruining, death-inducing, life-defining sort. So in Sleeper’s Wake, the first novel by the South African writer Alistair Morgan, Wraith’s penis is actually a pretty neat literary device. It provides character depth and motivation, is the jumping off point for learning about Wraith’s past, and is central to every plot twist in the book.

Though his list of published works is short—a few short stories and this novel—Morgan is quickly establishing himself as a terrific writer in general (in 2009 he won the Plimpton Prize, an O. Henry Prize, and was nominated for a National Magazine Award in fiction), and a master at sex writing specifically. But the sexual content is often perverse. “Icebergs,” published in The Paris Review’s Winter 2007 issue, features a tense and oddly intimate relationship between a father and daughter (“Melissa stripped down to her bikini and briefly endured the sharp Atlantic water,” her dad narrates. “For a minute, as she trotted back in her towel, she could have been her mother.” In the next paragraph, she takes off her top.) In another story, “Departure,” Morgan wrote what must be the greatest hypothetical sex scene of all time. Three adults sit around a table—an unhappy couple plus a woman—and while they make small talk Miles begins to daydream:

As Miles pretended to listen he removed Miranda’s blouse with his eyes. Underneath was a lacy white bra, which came off with surprising ease. While Miranda explained something about a long-term relationship fizzling out and her needing to get away from Cape Town, Miles began to kiss her breasts, which were ample in size… Living in a small town, Miranda was telling Anna, was a major adjustment after the city, but she was enjoying the work in the hospital, especially as she was one of only two doctors in the town. It must be difficult at times, said Anna, as Miles moved behind Miranda and gently pushed her facedown onto the table with one hand, while slapping her buttocks with the other.

These vignettes are effective and surprising because Morgan’s narrative voice is fairly dry, bordering on boring. But there’s a methodical poetry to it, too. As readers, we feel like we’re getting pure fact, and there’s power in that.

Sleeper’s Wake has about as much impact as one of Morgan’s short stories, which is actually plenty to fuel a typical novel, but given the relative scale one can’t help but feel that his short fiction gives more bang for the buck. At the beginning of the novel, John Wraith wakes up from a coma to learn his wife and daughter have died in a car accident that was his fault on both conscious and subconscious levels. The only solace he finds is in contemplating his own imminent death and “the relief that greets the gradual decline of man’s mutinous libido.” He spends the rest of the novel recuperating in Nature’s Valley, a remote South African vacation town on the coast of the Indian Ocean. In effect, Wraith’s convalescence leads to the restoration of his libido.

Wraith is an honest, if selfish, guy. While he certainly laments the loss of his family—as his surname hints, for a long while he feels like a ghost in his own body—“it is also dawning on me that a disturbingly large portion of my grief and sorrow is aimed at myself, not at having lost my wife or my daughter, but at having lost my way of life.” He takes responsibility for the accident, and as the story progresses, he takes responsibility for all his wrongdoings, which include an extramarital affair and a bout of plagiarism that ended his career in journalism. Still, at some point the valiant effort of taking responsibility is trumped by the actions themselves. Remorse isn’t really part of Wraith’s emotional vocabulary, either. It’s more like he’s saying to himself, “Yes, I did this, yes it was wrong. Okay, I’m busted. Let’s move on.”

Though Wraith doesn’t make excuses for what he’s done, he does speak at length about the human capacity for evil, a subject he came across while writing a never-to-be-finished book about genocide. “We are all capable of surprising cruelty,” he says. “It is something that makes us human.” The book takes its name from a scientific study on “sleepers”—aggressive personality traits that remain latent until awoken by particular conditions. Everyone, Wraith asserts, is susceptible to these, and one wonders if this is a feeble attempt to justify his errant nature with weak philosophy. (Sleeper’s Wake is also part of a Bach cantata, but with no overt connection to Morgan’s novel.)

But what is Morgan telling us when he suggests that the two impulses humans are incapable of resisting are sex and evil? Is sex then a mini-manifestation of our latent evil urges? The aggressiveness with which Morgan’s characters pursue satisfaction is a little alarming. And yet, it’s convincing. In all his writing, Morgan seems to be tackling sex head-on as a subject that’s not merely a preoccupation—the way Philip Roth might be said to tackle it—but as something integral to human life, something unavoidable, like sadness or death or the passing of time.

In Nature’s Valley, Wraith meets a family—Roelf and his children, Jackie and Simon—that’s also come to recuperate. One night in Johannesburg, a group of hooded robbers broke into Roelf’s home and beat his wife to death. Also, they attempted to rape Jackie, his seventeen-year-old daughter. To cope, Roelf has wrapped himself in a “religious Elastoplast”; Simon’s willed his iPod headphones to become anatomical extensions; and Jackie has become a sexual delinquent.

She makes advances on Wraith. At first Wraith is reluctant, but then, being himself, he submits. Several episodes consist of Wraith philosophizing about why he should or shouldn’t fuck Jackie, sometimes while she’s standing naked in front of him.

Once Jackie gets folded into the plot—once she becomes the plot—Wraith seems to forget completely about his car accident. There is no cohesion, no layering of the two stories. Rather, Wraith’s previous life seems merely an excuse to get him to Nature’s Valley, where the real action is.

Except that real action is unimportant—it’s something Wraith is caught in, but nothing that defines him or changes him. And therefore, it’s nothing that really changes the reader. Whether he sleeps with Jackie or not seems about as important as whether he gets ice cream after dinner—sure, he’d prefer it, but it’s not going to make or break his meal. Because it’s the only drama around, and it leads to other minor dramas: Jackie’s brother, father, and potential fiancée all come close to catching them in the act, and unfortunate consequences ensue, all of which Wraith would prefer not to happen, but which he deals with in his typically detached manner.

Sleeper’s Wake is still transfixing; Morgan is a talented writer and doesn’t flinch when it comes to awkward or awful moments. But the novel’s many intense subplots never end up fueling anything larger, and never converge into a whole. In the end, we’re left to assume that Wraith has indeed gotten over his loss, but it’s the literary equivalent of a wet dream: We’ve come to the conclusion, but we’re not quite sure how.

Max Ross's book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Star Tribune, The Harvard Review, and The Rake. He lives in Minneapolis. More from this author →