By night, David Sarella is a burglar at the bottom of the sea. He’s a lucid dreamer whose dreams are always threatening to slip from his control. Each time, he dreams a new cityscape that only his concentration maintains in a bubble of breathable air. When his nerves or belief waver, the sky starts to cave in from water pressure. Fish appear among the chimneys, and in the jewelry store he’s just snuck into, objects start to float. The diamonds look like pebbles on the ocean floor. He wipes his palms, pops a focus pill. His lover Nadia is waiting outside in a long black sedan subtly turning sharklike. Insinuations, little irrealities… and the whole scene starts to lose its density, its grip. But David’s got the goods. As they make their getaway, cops hot on their tail, he closes his eyes, feels himself rising through the waters… and wakes up.
An air of noir black as squid ink suffuses Serge Brussolo’s most celebrated novel, The Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome. Though it opens with a heist tense and hardboiled as French crime classics of the 50s, it has the sorrowful fatalism of a French New Wave love letter to, say, David Goodis. By day, David is what they call a “medium”: that is, a producer of dream-ectoplasms. Whatever object he steals in his dream he coughs up, on waking, as a shimmering piece of dream-blob (trailing blood and sputum). His assigned nurse Marianne is there to collect and clean it, but also to maintain him with bedpans and IVs while he sleeps. A single bureaucracy employs them both: one that manages the production, curation, and sale of these ectoplasmic objets d’art.
David can go under for days at a time. The deeper the dream, the bigger the prize; the more gripping and convincing the fantasy, the grander and more compelling the ectoplasm produced. And yet it’s also Marianne’s job to maintain David’s sanity: to remind him of the real world waiting for him when he wakes, to remind him that whatever face he puts on the loot (jewels, paintings, sculpture) is supplied by his subconscious.
In the world of Brussolo’s novel, ectoplasms have supplanted all other art forms. They have curiously soothing properties and come in all shapes and sizes. Some sit on sills and mantels, and others on pedestals in museums; one even adorns a public square, a celebrated monument whose aura is so strong it helped stop a war. That one was created by an old friend of David’s, Soler Mahus. Sometimes David visits him in the hospital. Soler is now a shell of a man, but once, in his dreams, he was a big game hunter. Now insane, he lives in his memories of dreams more real to him than life ever was. The lives of mediums are physically taxing and spiritually draining. Most mediums only have a short productive lifespan before they burn out. David himself is torn between an addiction to his dreams—where he’s a suave thief with an exciting life—and the possibility that, as his health fails, every next dream could be his last. And then there’s the pressure to produce. David’s last few ectoplasms have been puny and disappointing. Once mediums cough the ectoplasms up, they’re torn from their creators’ hands: subjected to a battery of clinical tests and auctioned at market or else disposed of with hazmat precautions (just in case). David’s last few have been so far below snuff that they haven’t survived the incubator during testing. Both fears—of death, and of inadequacy—pollute his dreams, sapping his ability and daring there.
This premise summary brutally simplifies a book whose unmatched originality lies in its feverish proliferation of detail. Word by word, phrase by phrase, Brussolo’s world seeps in through your pores, gets under your skin, and starts crawling around. His prose is always panic-attack frantic. The sense of reality’s slippage, as one reads, is utterly enveloping. If a mark of speculative fiction is the reification of what “literary” fiction is traditionally content to leave as metaphor, then Brussolo is speculation mainlined. His imagination, always on overdrive, is far more hit than miss. Serendipities of language fuel his imagery, propel his plots. His compositional method is constant associational riffing—a stray simile becomes reality, a figure of speech a solid object, an image a sudden obstacle. His unstoppable flow of ideas has sent other novels of his spinning out of control, but what could better capture a fever dream than his obsessive style? The tone can veer from grotesque to comic, unsettling to wacky and back in under a paragraph. What could better suit a fundamentally unstable world?
The free rein that Brussolo gives his fancy also complicates, rococos the architecture of his overarching themes, keeps them from being too controlling or pat. For The Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome clearly has large themes on its mind: the relationship between artist and society, and more specifically, how pulp publishing wrings writers out and hangs them up to dry. All Brussolo’s mediums are described as somehow childish, incompletely matured, fundamentally unequipped for adult life and clinging to specifically genre fantasies. The worlds of their dreams are a veritable history of escapist literature in France.
But Brussolo also seems to ask: where does the imagination come from? Even when we can trace the source of its images, what is the root of the creative drive? David is plagued not only by whether Nadia and his dreamworld are real, but what happens to them when he’s awake, what will happen to them when he dies. Which world is really real—the one of our fulfillment, or the one of our frustration, and can we truly choose to be in one or the other? If so, at what cost? Brussolo’s puzzle-box construction has all the breakneck pace, mind games, and set pieces of Inception, plus dreams that actually feel like dreams.
In this column so far, I’ve erred mostly on the “literary” side of things, focused on writers anointed by publication from major houses: Gallimard, Grasset, Laffont, Albin Michel. Serge Brussolo is a writer firmly on the “genre” side of the divide, having made his mark in Denoël’s Présence du futur imprint (one of France’s two most influential SF imprints, along with Fleuve noir’s Anticipation). As we now know, market categories are largely artificial.
Brussolo first burst onto the scene with “Funnyway” (a very French dystopia of endless bicycling in polluted trenches) which won the Grand Prix de la science-fiction française at Utopiales in 1979. His early years were devoted to a genre-bending mixture of SF and fantasy, fueled by an intensely personal vision. Since then, he’s dabbled in almost every genre, from thriller to horror, police procedural to historical novel (both medieval and WWII), and most recently, YA. Admittedly, he’s massively overproduced, to the tune of several novels a year, and his reputation has suffered as a result, his work half-baked when not ripping himself off. But he remains a force unto himself in French letters. Few other contemporary French writers can match his rabid imagination and the shocking cruelty of his worldview, or the surging, neurotic prose with which he brings it to life. Since its publication in 1992, The Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome has deservedly become a classic. Times have changed: Gallimard’s own Folio SF imprint recently reprinted it with other select titles from Brussolo’s backlist, bowing to a genius at once genre and sui generis.