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Robert Cohen's Inspired Sleep

By Rebecca Lomax · February 7th, 2002 · Get Lit!
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Robert Cohen isn't sure what's different about a book tour for the paperback release of a book as compared to the tour for the original hardcover release.

"To be honest, I've never done it before," he says. "My first novels, when they came out in paperback, the last thing the publishers wanted to do was to spend any money on them. So I honestly don't know."

All he knows so far is that the phone interviews are different, because he's forgotten his rap.

Cohen is speaking from California, where he's living while on sabbatical from teaching literature at Middlebury College in Vermont. The book in question is his third novel, Inspired Sleep, initially released a year ago.

Bonnie Saks is a divorced mother of two with another on the way. Her already hectic days are filled with changing her youngest son's wet sheets, ignoring her half-finished thesis and teaching a couple classes at a local university, untenured of course. And her nights are filled with restlessness.

Bonnie's story runs parallel with that of Dr. Ian Ogelvie, a young, "medicajumble"-speaking researcher. Between observations of the effects of a new sleeping agent on Molloy, his shamrock spider, he's trying without much success to woo another young researcher. Ian's passion toward his sleep studies is occasionally jaded by what he's learning about the sometimes-questionable practices of pharmaceutical research.

Cohen follows Bonnie and Ian for 100 pages before they finally occupy the same paragraph. In a chance brush in an elevator, they speak briefly. Cohen postpones their formal meeting until closer to the halfway mark, when Bonnie signs up for a sleep study that Ian administers.

Cohen carefully considered the postponement of their meeting.

"It made me terribly nervous ... whether it could possibly work," he says. "I guess I was interested in pushing that pretty much as far as I could. I have this instinct against melodrama that it almost killed me to have them meet at all."

All of the characters in Inspired Sleep share somewhat tenuous connections with each other. The supporting cast doesn't have the relationships with the main characters one would expect -- no mothers or best friends or confidantes.

"I had done some stuff in my first two novels with peoples' parents and I wanted to write a book without that," Cohen says, adding he wanted to present these characters as on their own without tying them to specific histories that family members would inevitable provide.

Ian's connections include the young researcher he's after, Marisa Chu; up-and-coming researcher of the past Don Erway, now exiled to inmate research; and Howard Heflin, head of research, who is more myth than man. His only actual appearance in the book is to teach a class Ian is observing, but his presence is constant as someone Ian feels he should admire and in some ways emulate.

Bonnie's list includes her babysitter, Cress, a college student; Larry Albeit, a parent from her son's preschool who's in the same research study with less stellar results; and her cheery and patient gynecologist, Dr. Siraj.

Bonnie bumbles through her life in every way. An out-of-town lover got her pregnant and, as she contemplates how to deal with it, we see her toking on a joint and sipping a glass of wine, not to mention taking experimental drugs.

"I was conscious of worrying about that, especially in this day and age when people stalk across the room to put out a pregnant woman's cigarette," Cohen says, addressing worries that Bonnie's irresponsible behavior would ignite readers. "The first readers who were women who read it, including my wife, weren't put off by that and didn't find it not credible, but it made them worried for her."

Bonnie sincerely believes that if she can curb her insomnia it will snowball clarity into other parts of her life. The effects of the small, blue pill are immediate and positive. A sparkling attitude change leaves Bonnie wrapping bright scarves around her neck and dancing into her classroom. On the other hand, Steve Albeit, who has taken the pill longer, likes the sleep so much he's stopped caring about his waking life.

Cohen contrasts his examination of the effects of the pill on individuals with a larger look at the business of pharmaceuticals.

"I was interested not just in looking at this very immediate up-close, personal pain, but also to pull the camera back a little bit and see that in context," Cohen says.

He became interested in the topic just from reading the business pages every day and noticing all the news on pharmaceutical companies, especially the scandals that were fueled by the thirst for a quick product.

By interspersing different kinds of documents between the chapters, Cohen gives himself a chance to vary the writing style. There are newspaper articles, chat room entries, even the babysitter's Macbeth term paper that Bonnie finds shoved between her couch cushions.

"I just wanted to open the novel up formally and have different kinds of vocabularies going," he says, "to just broaden the focus and jolt the reader out of the personal consciousness heavy stuff in the book."

There's plenty going on to keep the reader's mind interested at all times. And if the book thus far sounds kind of depressing and dramatic, it's not.

Wry humor and wit abound in every description and line of dialogue. It's the kind of book I was sorry to finish.

"I'm also sad to end because I'm a pretty slow writer and I take a long time within the book to figure out what I'm doing, and once I'm done it's like going from a full house to a bachelor studio," Cohen says. "Suddenly I've got no one around, and it takes me a really long time to fill up the house again. It makes me lonely to finish."

Maybe Cohen would feel better if he thought of this second book tour as a family reunion.



ROBERT COHEN signs and discusses Inspired Sleep at Joseph-Beth Booksellers Feb. 12 at 7 p.m. and at Books & Co. in Dayton Feb. 13 at 7 p.m.
 
 
 
 

 

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