The prose is lyrical and dreamlike.
The UW's creative writing MFA program has been a shot in the arm for Madison's literary scene, launching the careers of authors like Lauren Groff and Emma Straub. This story's latest chapter concerns Chloe Benjamin, who'll release her first novel, The Anatomy of Dreams, through Simon & Schuster in September.
A San Francisco native, Benjamin moved to Madison in 2010 after earning her bachelor's degree at Vassar. Unlike Groff and Straub, she didn't leave town after completing her MFA in 2012. Instead she stayed and became better acquainted with the city's customs and culture. These details are integral to Dreams, the bulk of which is set in a house near Atwood Avenue and a laboratory at the university. The protagonists visit farmers' markets, wear winter coats that look like sleeping bags and even read Isthmus.
"Being a transplant, I found myself fascinated by Madison, its physical beauty, its really unique populace, and special things that happen here in terms of collaboration and scholarship and community," she says.
A serendipitous accident also played a role. Benjamin recalls being consumed by her imagination as the characters and plot began to materialize. One day, she was so deep in thought that she missed her bus stop.
"I had to ride the bus to the end of the line and then come back [toward downtown]," she says. "It passed these two houses on East Main, near the train tracks, and I thought, 'This would be where my characters live.'"
In the story, one of those homes belongs to Sylvie and Gabe, high school sweethearts who've been hired to work on a study run by their boarding school's former headmaster. The trio teach people with sleep disorders how to dream lucidly, in hopes of helping them resolve subconscious conflicts that threaten their health and happiness. But after a study participant commits a heinous crime, Sylvie wonders if the research is ethical. Tinkering with the subconscious is like opening Pandora's box: Connecting people with their basest desires can lead to hope, but it can also unleash a host of horrors.
Before long, Sylvie struggles to distinguish her own dreams from reality. Benjamin turned to real dream research to help describe this experience.
"The dream research, without a doubt, was the most challenging part of the book," she admits. "In earlier drafts, the story was more speculative. Then I realized I was asking the reader to take a lot of leaps of believability, so I brought in more facts. The concepts in the book, like using lucid dreaming to treat sleepwalking, those are real."
Rich in metaphor and hypnotic rhythms, the prose is lyrical and dreamlike. Benjamin says poetry classes, especially those with Amy Quan Barry, may have contributed to this aspect of her writing style. An interest in internal conflicts also fueled the storytelling process.
"I've always been drawn to dreams and strangeness in the mind," she says. "Dreams can expose embarrassing parts of ourselves, but we often pretend they're not really part of who we are."