Fic­tion

A Man Lies Dreaming

  • Review
By – March 1, 2016

Some authors are big on con­cept; oth­ers are big on execution.

Israeli author Lavie Tid­har has the for­tu­itous abil­i­ty to hit the sweet spot that encom­pass­es both. In 2012, he won the World Fan­ta­sy Award for a book that, by all rights, judges should have avoid­ed: In an alter­nate world, unplagued by ter­ror­ism, a woman search­es for a pulp fic­tion author named Osama bin Laden. His new nov­el, A Man Lies Dream­ing, is an unof­fi­cial qua­si-fol­lowup. I don’t want to give too much away, but the essence of the nov­el makes it impos­si­ble to avoid spoil­ers, so I’ll do it fast: In an alter­nate 1939, Ger­man Com­mu­nists kicked out the Fas­cists, and Adolf Hitler is a pri­vate detec­tive in Lon­don hired by Jew­ish gangsters.

Okay. Breathe. Are we good on that point?

Wolf is a down-on-his-luck pri­vate eye, an expat Ger­man painter who’s land­ed in Lon­don, scrap­ing by and tak­ing any case that comes his way. It’s caus­tic. It’s risky. The unex­pect­ed thing about the book is this: It’s good. It’s damn good. Unflinch­ing in its por­tray­al, but also trou­bling­ly hon­est in its protagonist’s inte­ri­or mono­logue, you get the point

That it’s a book about an alter­nate his­to­ry isn’t imme­di­ate­ly clear. The laws of the uni­verse are nev­er ful­ly explained. It’s not like the method­i­cal and far-reach­ing world-build­ing of alter­nate-Holo­caust sto­ries like Michael Chabon’s Yid­dish Policemen’s Union or Philip Roth’s The Plot Against Amer­i­ca. It isn’t even the off-cen­ter focus of the nar­ra­tive, the way it is in Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Cas­tle. In Dream­ing, Tidhar’s char­ac­ters exist in their own pri­vate under­bel­ly — alter­nat­ing between the des­ic­cat­ed Lon­don alleys inhab­it­ed by dere­licts and rejects, the place where Wolf (the lit­er­al mean­ing of the name Adolf”) has land­ed, post-Ger­many, and the high-soci­ety balls and ban­quets of the Ger­man expatriates.

The sto­ry alter­nates between first- and third-per­son tellings. In both, the clipped, growl­ing, mad-at-the-Jews, mad-at-the-world ran­cor that Wolf’s terse prose uses fits both the noir char­ac­ter of the book and the bile that we all asso­ciate with the man. The book’s most curi­ous dimen­sion comes in a series of inter­ludes: an account of life in a con­cen­tra­tion camp, giv­en by one Shomer Ale­ichem, a writer, a fan­ta­sist, who, if we read it in this way, is telling the rest of the book, enact­ing the sto­ry in his mind, giv­ing his impris­on­er and tor­tur­er the role of pri­vate eye and mak­ing his life both excit­ing and its own kind of a liv­ing hell.

And there are gra­tu­itous moments, as any noir must have — the high/​low point of a young Jew­ish soci­ety woman seduc­ing Wolf, mount­ing his face and shout­ing Deutsch­land Uber Alles!” over and over is undoubt­ed­ly the apex of both — but all told, the book is a tight, mas­ter­ful cre­ation, an unex­pect­ed­ly mov­ing work.

Relat­ed Content:

Matthue Roth’s newest book is My First Kaf­ka: Rodents, Run­aways, and Giant Bugs, a pic­ture book, which will be released in June 2013. His young-adult nov­el Losers was just made a spe­cial selec­tion of the Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion. He lives in Brookyn with his fam­i­ly and keeps a secret diary at www​.matthue​.com.

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