In a Dream, I Dance by Myself, and I Collapse by Carolyn Zaikowski
Guest review by Jennifer Vosters
Carolyn Zaikowski’s latest hybrid fiction work, In a Dream, I Dance by Myself, and I Collapse, published in 2016 by Civil Coping Mechanisms, defies categorization in every way. It’s poetry and prose, experimentation and analysis. It’s a haze of impressions and thoughts – the kind you never share aloud because they couldn’t possibly make sense to anyone else. They barely make sense to you.
Yet somehow – in a messy whirlwind of images, feelings, questions, memories, and lies – In a Dream, I Dance by Myself, and I Collapse stands resolutely intact. In every string of dizzying, intricate sentences that demand total concentration, there are moments of exquisite clarity. It has the sense of being profoundly personal for Zaikowski, and that is precisely what makes it so accessible. For an example, watch this 90 second video of Zaikowski reading.
There can be no real synopsis for a work like this (Zaikowski’s website calls it a novel). The reader is guided through a series of self-reflective exercises that at the same time weave a complex portrait of a narrator/patient who flits in and out of focus; the “I” in one section could be the same “I” we meet in other subsections. The “you” could be one person in particular, or it might change even within a single piece. Still, themes emerge like clues throughout, as well as specific imagery, names, and places, lending at least some credence to the idea that maybe this is a novel, telling one elusive story. And what is that story? Memories of lost love, frustrations over failures, anxious self-examinations, longings for those who are gone – the story of a mind, a particular mind, any mind.
Zaikowski is not a gentle writer. The text is laced with trauma, death, psychosis, abandonment, endings. Even the “guidelines” she establishes – announcements and questions from a disembodied interviewer – are disorienting and dreamlike, steeped in the aura of a surrealist hospital ward. But rather than alienating the reader, the convention makes reading In a Dream an interactive experience. Questions bubble to the surface – psychological, spiritual, existential, and personal – and lead the reader to become aware of the self, unhinged from ordinary reality.
Reading In a Dream felt like studying an impressionist painting – some distance was required to allow the work to take shape and not lose it amid the brushstrokes and colors. The unpredictable combinations of words and images evoke something otherworldly and collective, spinning a kind of fantasia that defies literal interpretation much of the time. So instead of hunkering down and deliberating every brain-bending turn of phrase, I found it more satisfying to float along with the text, allowing it to conjure up a powerful blend of emotion that was both communal and deeply intimate.
In a Dream is a fascinating experiment in the relationship between writer, reader, and text. It is frustrating, cryptic, and deeply insightful. It is alien and intensely familiar. It is not like other collections or novels I’ve read, and as is likely evident from this review, I often struggled to understand what I was experiencing – so don’t pick this up if you’re looking for a traditional narrative focused on character or clarity. But if you’re up for a literary – and psychological – challenge, In a Dream, I Dance by Myself, and I Collapse rises as an impressive achievement for both writer and reader.
Jennifer Vosters is a writer, actor, and musician from Milwaukee. She is also a proud 2016 graduate of Saint Mary’s College in Indiana. Her writing has appeared in Slippery Elm Literary Journal, Bridge: The Bluffton Literary Journal, and National Catholic Reporter. Currently she is reading FLORENCE IN ECSTASY by Jessie Chaffee.