What an odd book this is. And in the best possible sense. I came across it some time ago in a list made by Scott Pack of books that hadn’t attracted the attention they deserved – a subject dear to my bruised, neglected heart. I ordered it (a used copy – the novel is now out of print) and then forgot all about it until I was looking through a pile of unread books behind a sofa – yes, I’m that disorganised – and found it, dusty, slightly forlorn, with the tagline you can see in the picture to the left of this: “One of the best first novels to appear this year”, which, given its current status (on Amazon UK, 11 used from £0.01) occasioned a rush of sympathy and anxiety, and the tiniest, tiniest pinch of schadenfreude, disguised as authorly fellow-feeling. I popped it in my bag and started reading it that morning, on the train to work. And I’m very glad I did.
The book was published in 1996 but the mood of the opening pages took me further back, to the early work of Mike Leigh: wonderful television films like Nuts in May and Abigail’s Party, with their fascinated, unnerving and nerve-raw take on aspiration, usually represented by Alison Steadman (coincidence, surely?) The heroine of Dreamhouse is herself a Steadman-like figure called Celia whose lifetime ambition, to celebrate her forthcoming marriage by holding an engagement party, is about to be realised. Celia shares a house with three other people, two of whom, inconveniently, have decided to host their own parties the same evening. Unlike Celia, they live in a world where bottom drawers are less important than mind-altering substances and feminist cinema. What can possibly go wrong?
The premise is farcical, but also appalling, for Celia at least, and the novel develops both the horror and the farce as though there were no significant difference between the two. Which is rarely true in real life, but is certainly true in certain forms of art and recreational drug use. Habens skilfully yokes both to the chariot of her novel, which runs amok within the walls of the shared (dream)house as it transforms itself into an inverted wonderland. Alice’s descent, for example, is paralleled by Celia’s ascent as she climbs the stairs to the first floor. There, she finds herself in a themed fancy-dress party and it will surprise no one to learn that the theme is Alice in Wonderland. That Celia is dressed in an improbably old-fashioned pale blue dress and has long blonde hair only adds to the confusion. In one sense, the novel is driven by this sort of muddle and displacement, like the finest Feydeau. Who people might actually be becomes contingent on a host of externalities: dress, place, expectation. Even gender is called into play, as the novel fills with competing Alices of both sexes and Celia’s one true self, as much a mystery to her as it is to anyone else, is called upon to define itself.
Celia is an anagram of Alice (I hope this isn’t giving too much away – I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I didn’t cotton on to this myself but had to wait until I was told…) and Dreamhouse, in its disarmingly inventive way, is itself an anagram of Lewis Carroll‘s Alice books, their elements, or some of them, being taken up and rearranged with the casual disregard for identity, and logic, of the original works, and with all their wit and delight in wordplay multiplied tenfold. Because, for sheer linguistic exuberance, Habens gleefully outdoes her inspiration by weaving wordplay – puns, assonance, spoonerisms, half-rhymes – into the very stuff of the writing. Everything, from Carroll to Joyce via music hall innuendo, gets tumbled into the mix. Here’s an example:
‘Within a matter of minutes my trousers were terrified and trying to come off. I hurried to help her remove her dress too, frightened little bit of flimsy that it was, for she was bellowing “Get off! Get off!” at the bottom of her voice. But I couldn’t get the frock off fast enough for her; it was frozen with fear, and some of the bottons got pulled off in the panic. Well, by this time she was everywhere. She came at me with open legs. Her body was all over my hands. She rammed herself at my rod, so soft I thought she would swallow me up.
Linguistic high jinks but beneath the dazzle is the description of what might have been a rape; and once again, this disjunction – this arbitrariness, if you like, within the language itself – between what’s said and what’s meant is at the very heart of what’s going on. In the dreamhouse nothing is stable, least of all the subjects concerned, as their clothes, their limbs, their members begin to do their feeling for them. The final court scene, towards which everything converges both within the novel and in its status as parody and anagram of the Alice books, is an absolute joy, told with an hallucinatory energy that would have left the Victorian don reeling. But it’s also the point at which the world outside this ersatz drug-induced wonderland comes back into play. It’s a world on the brink of chaotic involution; the fact that Glenda Jackson appears at one point – to refute the notion of sexual crime as a crime against property rather than the person – only adds to the general feeling that something larger is about to break through, something more real than apparent, or less topsyturvy. Connections begin to be made. There’s a death, a real death…
At times, the energy of Dreamhouse is simply too much to absorb. Nothing, in the end, is more exhausting than something that is itself inexhaustible. And for all its Aliceness, and its playful quizzical vigour, Habens’ novel is driven by something more than the final impossibility of defining what we mean by identity, and the fun this might produce. Like Tim Burton’s recent film based on the Alice books, it aims to do more and ends up doing slightly less. In both cases, it’s a question of narrative imperative being stronger than the kind of epistemological questioning Carroll engaged in. For all the visionary élan of Burton’s film, his need to simplify the story into good and evil plays against, and ultimately defuses, the gleeful relativism of the original books. In Habens’ case, the very real plight of Celia, of who she is and of what she might become, runs counter to the very procedures that give the novel its form, its charm, and its startling originality. In this sense, the novel is too rich a concoction for its own good; a concoction in which the parts of the book can begin to seem greater than the whole. But to say this is simply to recognise – and acknowledge – the book’s ambition, which is immense.