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Review of "Inspired Sleep"

By Robert Cohen
Vintage, 2001
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Sep 6th 2002
Inspired Sleep

Inspired Sleep is a clever novel with a fashionable focus on psychopharmacology.  It has two main characters, and the format of the novel is to tell the story from their different perspectives in alternating chapters, with occasional interruptions of chapters devoted to other writings such as newspaper clippings and messages in an e-mail group.

Ian Ogelvie is a research scientist at a Boston General Hospital, working on experimental medications that help with anxiety, depression and disturbed sleep patterns.  He is twenty-nine years old and is already well published in the top scientific journals of his field.  He is very excited by the positive initial results from the study he is currently engaged in; the spiders on the new medication weave perfect webs and the fighting fish no longer fight.  But as the story unfolds, it becomes clearer that the new drug has side effects that are troubling, and he starts to better understand the role of money and corporate interests in the supposedly neutral field of science.  Ian’s life slips inexorably off the fast track of success into crisis.

Bonnie Saks is approaching middle age, and her life is not all she imagined it would be; indeed, it’s a life of almost everyday crisis.  She is divorced, looking after her two sons, and trying to scrape a living by teaching English to local college students in the low-prestige and low-pay position of adjunct professor.  She has all but abandoned her Ph.D. dissertation on Thoreau.  Her sleep is highly disturbed, and most nights she lies awake for hours preoccupied by her troubles, noting the passing of minutes on her bedside alarm clock.  Her younger son still has problems controlling his bladder and her older son is on Prozac.  She has occasional visits from her lover, a successful literary theorist, and she thinks she might be pregnant again.  At a parents’ meeting, she meets Larry Arbeit, who tells her about the new experimental medication project he has volunteered for, which makes him feel great.  She thinks that Larry may be making advances to her, and she is not sure how to react.  Eventually she also becomes interested in also trying the new medication to help with her insomnia. 

An obvious comparison to make is between this novel and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, which also explores the role of psychotropic medication in modern American life; another is with David Lodge’s recent novel Thinks...  focusing on the mind-body problem, but Cohen’s work suffers in these comparisons.  The story moves along with some energy, and it has a pleasing breadth of vision, but Cohen tends to indulge himself in long overwritten paragraphs, and he flirts with many themes without exploring them sufficiently.   The secondary characters are rather flimsy, and it’s hard even to become very concerned for the welfare of the primary characters.   Nevertheless, it’s an interesting work and should interest many readers who wonder whether our lives are getting better as we take more pills to help us with our troubles. 


© 2002 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.