The appreciation of a novel can occasionally come down to something as random as timing. When one reads a book too early or too late, one can miss important elements within the story. This reviewer read Lord of the Rings too late and found its cod-archaic prose akin to downing a sedative. Similarly, when reading Paradise Lost in middle school, the only thing gained was “bragging rights” since the poetry remained impenetrable. All this represents a roundabout preface for my appreciation of Georgeann Packard’s novel Fall Asleep Forgetting.
In the months leading up to September 11, 2001, the inhabitants of Cherry Grove experience life-changing events. These events disrupt things spiritual and temporal, albeit in a non-linear fashion that forces the reader to figure out things for themselves. The novel opens with events in 1959 that will have consequences in 2001. Packard populates Cherry Grove, a Long Island trailer park located two hours from Manhattan, with its share of eccentrics, curmudgeons, and recluses. These include Cherry, the transvestite who renamed the trailer park, previously owned by her parents, both devout Roman Catholics. Claude is a park employee and amateur photographer, whose dated journal entries provide a commentary on the events at hand. Sonny and his wife Rae appear as a happily married couple, living in a trailer with their precocious daughter Six. Paul, a black poet, and owner of the Spiritoso, a nearby restaurant, comes to grips with his terminal illness. He and his sullen wife Sloan end up dealing with the disease in a manner that disrupts the isolation and sexual identity of Claude.
The accumulated quirks may lead to the charge that the novel is precious or twee. Literary novels, like independent films, can be guilty of such a charge, at least when poor writing or lazy plotting reduce the terms “literary” and “independent” into meaningless buzzwords meant only to move units on a bookshelf. Book reviewing is a subjective art and subjectivity, like taste, is not the same for everyone. The same is true for Fall Asleep Forgetting. The novel represents the highest form of literary art, a deft melding of religion, sex, love, illness, and death into a compelling story. The only comparable work that comes to mind in this regard is Evelyn Waugh’s masterful Brideshead Revisited, a novel of genius despite its flaws, snobbishness, and mean-spirited attacks on the lower classes. Fall Asleep Forgetting balances emotional sentiment and the hard events of everyday life with a sumptuous sensuality. The balance parallels the best made Cosmopolitan, a cocktail dependent on the exact proportions of Vodka, Triple Sec, and cranberry juice.
The novel begins with a drowning in 1959 and quotidian events in Cherry Grove in 2001. In the beginning, events unfold in an almost haphazard manner, interspersed with Claude’s journal entries. Not until later on do the seemingly random events and the journal entries gel into a whole. When events finally interlock, fraying relationships collide, sexuality becomes confused, and strongly held religious beliefs create friction and fears. The story hurdles forward with a feverish velocity, swept together in a mélange of memory, dream, and revelation.