Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews Dreams of Being by Michael J. Seidlinger. (Maudlin House)
“It is as if they understand the morality of its beauty, and the beauty of being so temporary, is alluring.”
The new Michael J. Seidlinger book, Dreams of Being, starts out following an unnamed writer as he struggles to find his footing within his own artistic endeavors. It’s a situation where he wants to create a piece of work that will carry his name through the ages, guaranteeing that he’ll be remembered forever. But the thing about this guy is that he’s not experiencing life in any substantial way. His days go by like this: he tries to write, feels bad about how it’s going, and then opts to aimlessly wander New York City. It’s not until he meets Jiro, a sushi aficionado, that he begins to find a subject worth writing about. Through a string of seemingly innocuous lies (that he’s a filmmaker with critical acclaim), our unnamed narrator finds himself at the helm of a personal documentary about Jiro and his obsession with sushi. It’s fitting that our narrator finds himself writing about the artform of sushi and how it is temporary by default, creating a nice juxtaposition between his reality and his dreams.
There’s a reason writers are told to avoid the subject of focusing on writers. Sitting down and working on a story is a solitary act. We find ourselves locked in rooms for hours chipping away at ideas. This doesn’t always translate into the most exciting narrative and there are moments in Seidlinger’s novel that made me want to get out of the narrator’s apartment. I wanted to see New York and have him interact with more people. For me, the moments that shine in Dreams of Being are when he’s in conversation with minor characters. These are the spots that widen the novel’s perspective and break out of the art-obsessed mindset that both Jiro and the narrator have. But it turns out my knee-jerk reaction to the solitary character was a little premature—more on that soon.
Dreams of Being is about someone who so badly wants to be great that he’s failed to realize his own obsession until he witnesses someone else’s.
There are moments that harken back to Jay McInerney’s Bright Light, Big City. A main character that is so preoccupied with wandering around the city we almost miss the core motivation for their wandering. Whereas we find out the main character in McInerney’s book is trying to outpace the inevitable grief of his dying mother, I don’t think we totally find an external purpose for our narrator in Dreams of Being. The parallels between the books might have sent me looking for an underlying issue, but in the end it was his own internal problems with alcoholism and a misguided pursuit of greatness that drove him to walk the city—which, in a way, can be reason enough.
About halfway through the book, it ends. Or it felt like it ended. The journey we were on with Jiro and the narrator came to a close. At first, I was skeptical because it didn’t feel like the story quite took off until Jiro and the narrator teamed up for the documentary, and I didn’t expect a figure as central as Jiro to be replaced. But the isolation with the narrator in the second half of the book works, and it works damn well. It comes when he’s moved past being self-obsessed, and on to introspection. He is trying to figure himself out and hoping to find context to all the circumstances he’s found himself in. The question of his artistic worth is posed, and the only way to get the answer is through his act of meditation. In the beginning, I raised an eyebrow at the choice of this main character, but in the end I don’t think it would’ve worked in any other way.
It’s an interesting book because, while I thought it was moving too slowly, I realize these spots were needed. Without them, you’d have nothing to weigh the alternative against. Seidlinger is creating these expectations where my knee-jerk reaction is resistance, but then wins me over. He’s turning my own expectations over on themselves, which draws me further into the story. When you get down to it, Dreams of Being is about someone who so badly wants to be great that he’s failed to realize his own obsession until he witnesses someone else’s. Wanting to be great isn’t an obsession. It’s a roadblock. Finding your subject, or muse, is what all of us should be doing, and I feel called into the world to find my own experiences.