This is my favorite ride. One seems to move so far, and yet in reality one gets nowhere.
—Tortoise in Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, and Bach (1979)
It was all a dream.
—The Notorious B.I.G.
IF WE MUST continue, then we must take a moment to trace our steps. Who among us has not forgotten that they’ve forgotten something? Remember: thoughts come to us, not us to them, and David Connor will not let us forget that in his debut novel, Oh God, The Sun Goes (2023). How seriously and playfully emergent—a poem pretending to be a novel that, somewhere along the way, forgot it was a dream.
Just like you. Just like me.
In so many ways, it is “rational” to constantly and passively reject the dreams we have, the dreams we are, and the dreams we come from for the sake of who we “really” are in the “real” world—for our real names. But this novel is not a rational one; Connor—an American research assistant at the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research in Montréal, Canada—invites us early on to question the limits between scientific and dreamt reality. So it is that the protagonist of this story is like many of us—deep in his dreams, he is nameless. Music becomes essential in a blank place like this: from the start, lyrics (e.g. Bill Withers, the Fleetwoods, Donna Summer, John 1:1) float in and out of this story to nudge us through this slippery nonsensicality—benevolent little clouds commenting on the faces and places the narrator encounters.
But it is imperative to call the first lyric of this story its very title: “Oh God,” the sun goes. This is the true announcement of a collapse in space-time. Sentiments are celestial here. So where does this mysterious narrator fit into such a matrix? It’s not immediately clear at the start, and only a little clearer by the end. And “The Sun”—our errant hero expressing her nameless epiphany? For she is gone: The sun is missing the instant we set foot in this seemingly infinite version of Arizona.
Imagine “simplicity” is your black wire and “complexity” your red, and electricity is stinging the air at your ears as you attempt to attach this uncanny battery of a novel to your heart. Energy becomes a capacity for distance, yet a circuit, by its very definition, depends upon looping. It’s true that the narrator’s small quest for the missing sun does not take him far, yet this does not stop him from approaching an edge of infinite distance. His hunch is simple: someone in Arizona knows where the sun is; it’s only a matter of finding that person. Yet the narrator embodies Yeats’s gentle reminder: he treads softly, for he is treading through somebody’s dreams. And to be truly careful is to be truly complex—it is to know that one day something or someone may be missing, and their disappearance(s) may or may not be affected by one’s very own Schrödingery.
A deceptively complex state of heart, it’s no surprise that identities might emerge from songs. “Mr. Blue,” he calls himself fleetingly—the first time our narrator self-identifies. The Fleetwoods’ song of this name has just come on the radio and clearly guided him to this projection of self, yet he cannot tell his acquaintance why this is his name; he cannot do this because this is a story where explanations rarely suffice. So it is that things are not necessarily things in this story. Everything is a kind of moment, plastic and involuntary.
It follows that our narrator’s quest is a comparatively oblique one in contrast to the heroes of antiquity and our contemporary commercial blockbusters—and this obliqueness is so goddamn wonderful to be slow with. Psychic distances are everywhere; it does not matter if they are measurable. Look at them, Connor suggests. The awareness of what isn’t there is, itself, a location. To wake these distances through narrative—not unlike Calvino’s personifications of cosmic processes in Cosmicomics (1965)—is to validate the epic movements of one’s interiorities. In this space of mind, ephemera untangle from their conventional casting: rocks and shrubs are thoughts to pass by; a city is an eye closed in a dream; a parking lot is a reticular collection of non-places; a mile of driving is the thing that moves, not the car. So it is that the difference between a teacher and a clue in this story is not an important difference. Perhaps the movement of bees will help the narrator find the sun; perhaps the founder of a curious museum will help him; perhaps it is the context surrounding one sleeping Dr. Higley who has been perfectly balancing an egg on his forehead for the entire month the sun has been missing.
And is the narrator searching for love? Of course he is—for the very person “M” to whom the novel is actually dedicated. A hole in the sky is obviously a hole in his heart. But thank G-d what Connor begins obliquely he maintains—one can love simplicity without submitting boring solutions to apocalyptic problems, after all. The missing sun can be a missing person, sure. But it can also just be the pain and terror of a missing sun.
What amazes me about his novel is how Connor deals with the problem of stakes. At a point, a plausibility presents itself: our narrator is the dreamy counterpart to the sleeping Dr. Higley. Meaning the primary perspective of this book is a nonperson; an unconsciousness; a dream person that a lazy reading would relegate to pithy, inconsequential dream obstacles. If Dr. Higley is the real one, then we only ever get to know this dreamy fragment of him. Though this may be the dream-self navigating a dream state, it’s not a dream deployed to shirk the constraints of reality.
We also become familiar with another name: “H.A.” Throughout the book, 10 interstitial illustrations juxtapose small maps of an incomplete fragmentary Arizona next to a multivalent black brushstroke. Is the brushstroke a partially represented cerebral hemisphere? Is it a fragmentary state? Is it a profile of two nested faces? My money’s on all of these. And under each illustration, we confront descriptions of the ongoing notation and charting of someone asleep by the name of H.A. This, we can assume, is the person (place or thing) hosting this quest to find the sun. What strikes me is that this name is a veil: when the narrator is eventually brought to tears upon the realization that H.A. must be his name, this name is not only inextricably linked to the mysterious Dr. Higley—it is also only and perpetually the abbreviation of the name. The unabbreviated name remains as veiled and unarticulated as M’s—their utterances as hidden as the sun.
If it’s all a dream, it’s because dreams really happen and their effects are real.
For instance: there is a memory described by our narrator where he is the subject of an experimental sleep treatment, as supported by the ongoing scientific notation; his dreams are being analyzed for an experimental purpose. Has his mind been permanently altered by neuroscientific inquiry? Is this why the sun is actually gone? Is this a question of dislocation between inner and outer realities?
But Connor is also not afraid of puns: a dream state is also an Arizona State of Mind. The story is both a dream and a real sprawling desert landscape letting the narrator locate the mind in the body and the body in the mind. Where the story begins with familiar city names like Tempe and Phoenix, the map of the mind slowly populates with places like the neighborhood of Medulla, a rail line called Corpus Callosum, a train stop called Thalamus Station, a parking lot in the center of a neighborhood called Hippocampus, and a library called Wernicke’s Area—all of the italicized jargon being specific to the field of neuroscience. By the end of the novel, where a very handy appendix appears, David Connor, a real-life research assistant at a cognitive neuroscience laboratory, has taught the lay-reader to consider the story in terms of Optic Radiation, among many other neuroscientific phenomena. (The 10 illustrations and their notation build the paradox even further: they explain everything scientifically, yet these explanations are empty—practically mindless.)
Just like the narrator, our familiarity with the terms do not make it any easier to precisely address the situation at hand. Whichever way one chooses—plainly, poetically, neuroscientifically—an ever-present problem persists: whose mind is this? To this point: To say that the protagonist of this story is, eventually, fully abandoned by the story itself does not give anything away.
Connor’s prose is deliberate and clean and inventive; he is not afraid of white space and line breaks, and his language is as precise as it is divergent. In this way, disorientation becomes a matter of the plot’s rhetoric and strategy, with the text balancing carefully on the edge of neuroscientific didacticism. To my reading, this happens in good faith, not as a patronizing flex. As someone truly unfamiliar with the inner workings of neuroscientific application and research, this story reads to me as somewhat of a primer, yet it does not depend on its appendix for legitimacy. And I don’t think it is a fault to say that the story is much more linguistically and conceptually salient than it is narratively. Mostly, I revel in its deep care for nonsense, and I am inspired by the anti-location of “sight” itself with which the novel is continually preoccupied. The haunt of the word revel, and its embedding in revelation, is not a haunting I want to end.
Giovan Alonzi is a freelance writer and teacher based in Los Angeles, whose work has appeared in 7x7.la, Entropy, PANK, VOLT, The Believer, and Full Stop.