The story is about a woman who is dreaming she is dreaming, and who in the dream’s dream wakes herself up because she knows she is frightened of dreaming. She doesn’t know why she is frightened of dreaming, but she does know what she feels when she wakes from a dream. It’s a sickness, an influenza, she thinks, a parasite that doesn’t hurt but weakens, makes her legs feel like liquid, her bones like ropy nooses, her head as a balloon. She has dark hair and her given name is Renée Renault. She works as a data processor in a large office building in Manhattan and takes the 2 train from Sterling Street near the Botanical Garden in Brooklyn to Thirty-fourth Street every day, including weekends. She is prone to bouts of insomnia and is certain this has everything to do with her fear of dreaming. She has tried to locate the point in time when she first became aware of the fact of her fear of dreaming, but every time she does this she starts to feel the fear itself, or what she thinks might be the fear, which in turn makes her feel the sickness again, the one she feels upon forcing herself awake when she’s realized she’s begun to dream. The woman is very smart. She is well aware that there is probably something hideous and awful that occurs in her dreams, and that this is why she is frightened of dreaming. The woman can never under any circumstances remember her dreams when she wakes. Sometimes she considers it a remarkable thing that her brain has made it so she doesn’t have to continue dreaming when she dreams. It’s as if her brain feels for her, she thinks, has sympathy and empathy for the fear she feels in a way that other human beings simply couldn’t if she were to express this fear to them. The woman has a fondness for balloons. She likes balloons of all shapes and sizes and keeps a party-size one floating in the corner of every room of her apartment. When one balloon starts to sink to the floor she blows up another one and puts a string on it and leaves it in the corner to float. She likes red balloons best, but this is not because she has seen the famous short film Le ballon rouge or because she enjoys the 80s pop hit “99 Luftballoons” by the German singer Nena. It is, instead, because when she was a little girl growing up in Flushing, her father took her to the Guggenheim one day. Her father was a painter. He loved, more than anything else, the Guggenheim’s collection of paintings by Paul Klee, and he said to her as they rode the train that day that he wanted to show her something he loved, and that that’s why they were going to the museum to see Paul Klee. When the woman thinks of that day now, she can only remember one painting. She remembers standing in front of Klee’s Roter Ballon and wishing she could reach into the painting and grab the little black dot at the end of the string that went up to the red balloon floating in the middle of the painting, and that when she did she would float away with it, through the space in front of the painting and between her and it, and then into and through the canvas itself, on into some other, brown-skied, colorfully geometric, Klee-like world—just as she’d seen the characters do in Mary Poppins. The woman also has a fondness for apples. She likes apples of all shapes and colors and sizes, and has little knickknacks of them all throughout her apartment. She likes green apples best. This is not because she has a particular fondness for eating Granny Smith apples; nor is it because she enjoys the late and posthumous records of the Beatles that continue to be released to this day by Apple Records, whose logo is a small, shiny-green apple. The reason the woman likes green apples best is because of a painting she once made in her father’s studio when she was just a teenaged girl. The painting depicts a man in a bluish suit with a red tie and a bowler hat standing in front of a brick wall, beyond which lies the sea and a cloudy sky. The man’s face is, to a large extent, obscured by a hovering green apple with five leaves on its stem. The man’s eyes can still be seen, though; they are peeking over the edge of the apple and are also green. The man’s left arm appears to bend backwards at the elbow, and his hands look as if they’re made of reddish clay. When she finished painting the painting that day, her father came over and asked her where she’d seen it before. This confused the girl, because she was certain the only place she’d ever seen the painting before was in her head, just before and during her painting of it. Her father started to explain to her that what she’d painted was a replica of a painting that already existed. He said that this painting on the easel in front of her looked to be an exact copy of René Magritte’s famous 1964 work, The Son of Man—Le fils de l’homme, he called it. This was unbelievable to the girl, and she insisted that what he saw on the easel was something she’d thought of entirely on her own. Her father, being her father and the adult in the situation, insisted that what she’d really done more than anything else was demonstrate concretely a remarkable visual memory, an incredibly detailed and precise visual memory, and that she simply must have, at some point, seen Magritte’s painting somewhere. To this day, the woman claims she’d never seen the painting before, and she held a silent grudge against her father for the rest of his life. Her painting hangs in her apartment above the couch in her living room, and when guests come over they comment on the Magritte and wonder how much she paid for it. The woman never tells her guests she painted it of course, because she knows it would be too complicated to talk about and that no one would believe her if she told them anyway. Several years later—after the woman’s father had passed; after she’d moved into her apartment on Sterling Street; after she took the job as a data processor in Manhattan—the woman was wandering through the Art section in a bookstore. She’d been wandering aimlessly for the better part of an hour when all of a sudden she began to feel very ill. She felt weak—as if she might collapse right there in the aisle unless she found somewhere to sit. Her head began to feel as if it were expanding outward—as if it were inflating—as if what was inside was trying to get out. The woman saw a chair at the end of the aisle and made her way over to it and sat. It was only after sitting that she realized she’d had a book in her hands when she’d started to feel sick. She looked down at the cover of this book and saw it was called The Surrealists. The woman opened the book and started flipping through its pages. She saw many things by Salvador Dali and Max Ernst and Man Ray. She saw Giorgio de Chirico’s La tour rouge and Yves Tanguy’s Indefinite Divisibility. The woman had seen all of these paintings before and in fact knew them all quite well. The sickness started to pass as she turned the pages of the book and she began to feel well again. But then something strange happened. The woman turned the page and saw, to her surprise, an exact replica of the painting she had painted as a girl in her father’s studio—the painting her father had rightly claimed had already been painted by Magritte, his Son of Man, Le fils de l’homme. However, when the woman looked beneath the painting she saw that it was not Magritte to whom the book attributed the work; it was, instead, to her, Renée Renault, the Belgian surrealist painter of Le fils de l’homme. This frightened the woman very much, because even though she knew she had in fact never seen Magritte’s painting when she painted it herself, she also knew she’d never shown her painting as her painting to anyone but her father. And further, she was also the only one who’d ever been in possession of her painting of the painting. So how could it be that as she sat there in the chair in the bookstore that there was a book with a picture of the painting that claimed she had, in fact, painted the painting first, and further that she was a Belgian surrealist and not a New York data processor? The woman began to feel the sickness again. Her legs felt weak and her bones began to feel ropy. Her head was swelling like a balloon. Klee’s Roter Ballon flashed in her head, and so did the red party balloons in the corners of the rooms of her apartment. She saw an image of her father in his studio. He was shirtless and had paint all over his arms, his jeans, and his work boots. He was on the other side of the studio and it looked to her from where she sat that he was wiping the paint from his brush onto a palette. When he turned and faced her though, she saw that it was not a brush he was holding, it was a knife, and that what he’d been doing was sharpening it with a whetstone. Before she could process what was happening the woman realized that, yes, this was her father standing over her holding a knife, and that, yes, he looked very much as if he was going to use that knife to do something monstrous to her. The woman was so scared she wet herself. She started calling out to him to stop but he didn’t seem to hear her or care, and then just as he began to move toward her with the knife, the woman woke herself up. It had all been a dream. And now, sitting in a chair at the end of the aisle in a bookstore in Paris, all was back to normal: he was himself again. He was himself looking at a book entitled The Surrealists full of things by Salvador Dali and Max Ernst and Man Ray. On one page there was a picture of Giorgio de Chirico’s La tour rouge and on the next a picture of Yves Tanguy’s Indefinite Divisibility. The man had of course seen all of these paintings before and in fact knew them all quite well. The sickness he’d felt earlier as he stood in the aisle began to pass as he turned the pages of the book. But then something odd happened. The man turned another page and saw, to his surprise, an exact replica of the painting he had painted as a boy in his mother’s studio—the painting his mother had rightly claimed had already been painted by Renault, her Le fils de l’homme, The Son of Man. However, when the man looked beneath the painting he saw that it was not Renault to whom the book attributed the work; it was, instead, to him, René Magritte, the New York surrealist painter of The Son of Man. This frightened the man very much, because even though he knew for a fact he had never seen Renault’s painting when he painted it himself, he also knew he’d never shown his painting as his painting to anyone but his mother.
The story goes on like this indefinitely, Magritte dreaming he read he had in fact painted his own painting in a world where it was true that Renault had painted the painting first, and then waking himself up from a terrible dream in which his mother was about to kill him, only to find it had all been a dream, and that now she was herself again, Renée Renault, dreaming she read she had in fact painted her own painting in a world where it was true that Magritte had painted the painting first, and then waking herself up from a terrible dream in which her father was about to kill her, only to find it had all been a dream, and that now he was himself again, René Margritte, … ad infinitum.
There’s not much else the story could do. And even though it is, to me at least, a frightening story—a horror story—it’s less frightening than this: Several weeks ago I was myself in a bookstore and was, myself, wandering aimlessly through the aisles. I have no idea why this often happens to me when I’m in bookstores, but happen it does: I find myself in the reference section looking through all kinds of reference books. On this particular day I was looking through something called the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory. I happened upon the entry for surrealism. I read that surrealism was a “movement originated in France in the 1920s and was a development of Dadaism.” I also read that the “surrealists attempted to express in art and literature the workings of the unconscious mind to synthesize these workings with the conscious mind. The surrealist,” the text continued, “allows his work to develop non-logically (rather than illogically) so that the results represent the operations of the unconscious.” I scanned the rest of the entry—I was quite familiar with the term—and looked instead only for the names listed therein. I found André Breton, Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard, Benjamin Péret, and Phillipe Soupault. I also found de Chirico and Ernst and Dali and Picasso. Still further down, I found Antonin Artaud, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs, Julien Gracq, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Alan Burns, and B. S. Johnson. I was familiar with all of these names on the list; I had read or viewed at least one thing done by each of these individuals. There was one more name though, one I couldn’t possibly have expected: Athanasius Eustace Kotsonis—my given name, the name my parents used for me in our house in Flushing where we only spoke Greek. I read on and found that Kotsonis’ primary work was a novel called René Renée, which as you now know is the title I’ve given to a failed piece of fiction I tried to write about a woman who is dreaming she is dreaming, and who in the dream’s dream wakes herself up because she knows she is frightened of dreaming.
It ought to go without saying that I closed the book immediately and left the store as if I’d forgotten something of great importance that needed to be done at once. If anyone had bothered to notice me, they would have seen I was visibly shaken. I didn’t stop walking until I reached the 1 2 3 station at Fourteenth Street, whereupon I sat down on a bench and tried to process what had just happened.
I’ll admit to being very scared of absolutely everything over the course of the next twenty-four hours. I called in sick to work and spent my time scouring the Internet for anything called René Renée and anyone whose name even remotely resembled my own. I called friends and asked if anyone had ever heard of the novel or its author (I go by Thomas, and only my family knows my name is Athanasius). I have yet to find anything that corroborates either’s existence, and I haven’t been able to bring myself to go back to the bookstore. This is becoming something of a problem, though. Some books I ordered earlier that month have now arrived, and the clerk keeps calling and asking when I’m going to come pick them up. I always tell him I’ll be in tomorrow, and one of these days that will be the truth.
The real problem I’m having is I can’t decide if when I finally go in I ought to look in the Penguin Dictionary again. If I do look in it, I’m hoping the contents have changed. If things remain the same—or if the book isn’t in stock anymore—I have no idea what I’ll do with myself. A world like that’s a world I’d rather not be a part of. Unfortunately, though, the world is more or less real; and I—unfortunately—am more or less Kotsonis.