There is a common rule in fiction writing that you should never write about dreams. It’s engraved in stone right next to “burn all adverbs.” Dreams are a lazy way to show action that doesn’t happen, or even worse, to fool the reader up until the surprise twist ending of “but it was all a dream!” And after all, dreams aren’t real. They’re nothing more than random firings of synapses. They’re meaningless. They bring nothing of use to a short story. Right?
A new short story by Rachel Sherman at The Offing proves that dreams do have a place in fiction after all. It just depends on how they’re used. In Sherman’s story, “Torture Receipts,” the narrator tells us about a dream her husband had that involved an old girlfriend’s dog flying out of a car, waiting in line, going to court, and being handed a receipt that some old lady calls a “torture receipt.”
What makes this dream work is that it’s brief, only taking up a short paragraph, and it’s not a dream sequence, which can be self-indulgent and misleading, but only a description of a dream. Additionally, it is accurately dreamlike in its simultaneous weirdness (dogs flying out windows) and total mundanity (receipts, waiting in lines, court). And to top it off, the thing that really makes it work is that the characters ascribe no symbolic meaning whatsoever to it. It’s not an omen or portent or revelation of subconscious desire. Its only remarkable because it introduces the concept of a torture receipt, which the narrator, who is a writer, thinks would make a great title. (And it is the title. Meta!) From there the story takes us down a path that is part musing on the art of fiction and part scenes from the disillusion of a marriage. On dreams, Sherman’s narrator says:
Some people say that when you write fiction you should imagine a world without dreams. They say that dreams are only interesting to analysts, lovers, and the people who appear in them. I say that dreams in fiction simply need to illuminate something else. I say that dreams can be beautiful too; that someone has to write them.
The story itself is dreamlike in its form. It meanders back and forth in a stream of consciousness way, making unexpected connections between receipts and dreams and marriage and torture. The rhythm of the prose is hypnotic; it mesmerizes you and pulls you in and then punches you in the gut with one of Sherman’s perfectly honed, perfectly devastating lines. Sherman’s narrator is right: a dream in fiction only needs to illuminate something else. And what the dream illuminates in this story is the narrator’s pain and anger, the slow implosion of her marriage, and it does it not with heavy symbolism or messages from the subconscious, but simply by providing her a vocabulary: “torture receipts.”
I do not tell my husband that I will steal torture receipts, but I sleep next to him while he dreams. I do not ask who the old girlfriend was, but I wonder.
I know that if my husband writes a story about torture receipts, it will be angry and cerebral and complex, and he will go to a place I didn’t know he had in him until I read the story.
I know that the violence in his head is something that we do not have in common; mine takes place in my stomach, and I keep it there by swallowing.
All this to say that if Torture Receipts were the title of my husband’s story, I would not be inside it.
On Tuesday, The Butter highlighted the extraordinary writer Sarah Rose Etter in their “This Writer’s on Fire” feature. Etter’s work is not quite like any other. It’s not just the often surreal nature of her stories or the raw emotion contained therein that makes her work remarkable; it’s what she does with her words. Melissa Moorer at The Butter says it well:
Etter is kicking words and phrases around, throwing ‘word tantrums.’ Words you think you know and understand like family, father, girl, will never be the same when she gets through with them, with you. Etter’s words don’t settle. This is dangerous ground, a subduction zone. Her stories should come with an earthquake warning.
Take Etter’s story “The Julgulars” that appeared in Hobart. In the very first paragraph, there is a jugular in a bag:
When it is time to get the jugulars, we move our bodies out into the streets with our best cleavages bared. We move as one woman, but it turns out we are one dozen women from the same neighborhood. I won’t know that until later, until I get to the house, his jugular nestled in a black bag, bleeding through the fabric onto my hand, the hand that did it.
It’s not just the mystery of what on earth these woman are doing with jugulars that hooks you, it’s the words themselves. The women don’t go or walk into the street, they “move [their] bodies out into the street.” They have their “best cleavages bared,” like one might put on a best dress, but also like one might bare one’s teeth. The jugular isn’t inside a bag, but “nestled” in it like a small forest creature taking a nap. Etter’s words create layers of meaning. They subvert expectations. They unsettle. They come together to create stories that haunt your brain with their phrases and mysteries and truths. You’ll have to read them to experience it yourself, but we’ll leave you with this promise from Moorer:
Like a spell, like a formula, Etter reminds us that re-arranging words, elements just slightly, changes the meaning, changes the world. The spell you thought you were casting for love, yields turnips, plague; the formula for gold yields blood or maybe waves of koalas. The words, like the ground under your feet, shift and bend, reshape the world.