Best of 2009: Michael McGirr's waking life

Michael McGirr: The Lost Art of Sleep. Pan Macmillan Australia, 2009. ISBN: 9780330424912. RRP $32.99. Online

Michael McGirr, The Lost Art of SleepReview first published July 2009

It's hard to imagine Michael McGirr asleep. Easier to picture him nodding off because the movement of the head can be read as resistance to life's tedium. And we know what this gifted connoisseur of life's ironies thinks about tedium because he tells us. Staff meetings are not his cup of tea. Tutorials rarely galvanise him. Cant bores him to stupefaction. About sermons he maintains a stout scepticism — he once dozed off during one of his own.

Yet by nature McGirr seems so much more the avid magpie than the dormouse. Even when he confesses to curling up under his desk to have a post-lunch kip (I have seen him do this) you figure he's just closing his eyes the better to plot mischief, or give his racing brain a few horizontal minutes to organise and file the prodigious miscellany that might otherwise leak out and stain the carpet.

The Lost Art is mayhem and wisdom in one handbook — a disconcerting package, because it makes you anxious and glad at the same time. Anxious because sleep, or lack of it, obsesses all of us at one time or another, and the extremity of McGirr's personal sleep pathology (acute sleep apnoea), however comically told, is daunting because it makes us all feel vulnerable — there but for the grace of ...

He knows too well that we simply can't manage without sleep. Like water, it is essential (little wonder that sleep deprivation and water boarding have become the tortures of choice for our disarrayed times). But the book also makes one vehemently glad — glad at the prodigal generosity of the writing, its humanity, its lust for family (a very extended 'family') life in all its exhausting and patched variety, for its comic brio and its grace.

On one page you can enjoy McGirr's zany scholarship (never waste a Jesuit education). He'll tell you that the word 'mortgage', from the French, means 'death grip', and the derivation makes mordant sense when you consider its context in the book: McGirr and his wife and young family of three in the clutches of the Melbourne real estate industry — an experience to rob one of more than sleep.

A few chapters on and you are reading bedtime pirate stories with McGirr's three children and feeling only gratitude for the joyously realistic way this former priest has become a husband and father. There is no sense here of an earlier life discarded, but rather of a rich evolution, with the past honoured, all the traces of experience cherished and worn on the front.

In between you get to follow the characters McGirr casts as the heroes and villains in this chronicle of sleep and wakefulness. There's that bright spark, Thomas Edison, who brought us light and noise in the form of the electric bulb and the phonograph. McGirr savours Edison's eccentricities, like proposing to his second wife — his first 'died of nervous exhaustion' — by tapping out 'will you marry me' in Morse code. But there is a cautionary tale in there too. This is the author, remember, who once had his new wife join him in a pushbike ride between Sydney and Melbourne as research for his next book (Bypass).

After Edison comes Homer and the Odyssey ('a book about getting home to bed') and then Virgil and his Aeneas, whose life trajectory, as we might say in tutorials, is not towards rest. Then there's Florence Nightingale, known to most of us as the woman who lit the Crimea with her lamp, but whom McGirr depicts as another eccentric, this time an austere one who 'spent most of her long life in bed'.

Dickens, another McGirr favourite, scarcely went to bed at all. He paced London's streets instead. Then comes Freud on the truth of dreams, and before him Aristotle, who thought of them otherwise: 'a random collection of mental bricolage ... not to be trusted'. And Plato and the Qur'an, the Bible and the Hebrew Scriptures and Shakespeare and Balzac and Don Quixote and some heartfelt chapters on Z-class drugs and other hazards to be negotiated by the world's insomniacs, the author included.

A random collection of mental bricolage? Never. McGirr is an inspired synthesiser, serious in intent even while riotous in execution. For him everything chimes in a narrative that, in the best essay tradition, uses the self as sounding board. You could call The Lost Art of Sleep volume three of a complex autobiography (with Things You Get For Free and Bypass). But if the central character embodies the quandaries, the delight of the writing lies in the world around him, particularly the close world of his wife Jenny, their son Benedict and the twins, Jacob and Clare.

Sleepless parents of twins should read this book. So should teachers whose students come to class dazed by the screens that have become their bedfellows. There are far, far better bedfellows, and this book is one of them.

Morag FraserMorag Fraser is a former editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Morag Fraser, The Lost Art of Sleep, Michael McGirr, 978 0 330 42491 2 2009



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