Kelly Cherry’s engrossing novel, A Kind of Dream, the third in a trilogy, begins with a condensed and slightly ironic family saga/prologue that introduces a few of the main characters (many of whom appeared in the earlier books). Most segments in the prologue start with an italicized word or a grammatical term used to explain connections in language.  These terms also serve as metaphors for relationships between people. For example, the section entitled, “Art and Eleanor” starts with “Compound subj. As people do, Art and Eleanor began as individuals.” Yet Cherry quickly shows us that as complex as liaisons in language can be, they are no match for the perplexing relationships involving actual people: “Ellie perhaps has always wanted Arthur to be more like her father, but for that to happen she would have to be more like a daughter, and she can’t be a daughter when she has to be a mother. Except that she can’t be a mother because she has to work all the time.”

While presenting the characters—from a sort of aerial view—Cherry ushers in the central concern of the book: what it means to be an artist (be that a writer, a painter, or a musician). To say art is the “theme” would be too reductive for what Cherry accomplishes. Yet to say “underlying meaning” would suggest a shyness that Cherry eschews.  Kelly escapes the clichés so many fall into when writing fiction about art by neither presenting the theme in neon nor obscuring it in subtlety. Art is the concern. No question. The subject is her characters and her characters are artists who think and feel like artists, which means to be driven, absorbed, and questioning—but also people who want the same things other people want.

Through compelling interactions and situations, Cherry shows us how life is different for those who have a “calling” to be an artist. An anxious child of unstable parents who is not destined to be an artist might react by selecting a safe life, becoming an accountant, or might escape her worries in drugs or alcohol. But in Cherry’s world, “the watchful [artistic] child [makes] plans to escape but worries that to leave the past behind is to betray it. The watchful child is afraid to blink, lest everyone disappear . . . [Instead] the child . . . writes everything down, to keep it safe (p. 7).” Or the artistic child funnels her fears or emotions into painting or acting or music. As Callie, a violinist and the youngest of the primary characters, muses:

        Is it a dream, then, music? Does it separate you from people? It does, she thinks, and it doesn’t. Through music, she knows people, their innermost feelings. Music is a real and reckonable force in the world. It speaks to everyone, knows everything—or rather, some music does (p. 22).

Thus, Cherry illustrates the triangulation in many artists’ lives by showing their work to be at the apex in their relationships with other people.

As important as the prologue is in establishing the landscape of the novel, the book does not really begin until we leave it and more fully enter the lives of Art and Eleanor’s descendants and those who people their lives. The book contains a singular narrative thread, yet it also, at times, feels like a linked collection—in the best sense of a genre. The first full chapter, “Story Hour,” focuses on a man named Larry and his librarian girlfriend whom only has a brief—though quite dramatic and tragic—connection to Octavia (Eleanor’s granddaughter, also Callie’s mother). (In fact the chapter initially appeared as a stand-alone story in Commentary.) But Larry’s distant association only serves to strengthen the importance of the fleeting connections in one’s life, while continuing to play with the parallels between life and language. Consider when Larry “woke staring into darkness and felt like he was staring at death; what it would be like; how it would be like nothing, the end of simile (p. 32).”  

Much of the novel focuses on Eleanor’s daughter, Nina (a writer); Eleanor’s granddaughter, BB (an actress) who becomes pregnant when she is fourteen and leaves her baby with Nina; BB’s daughter, Octavia (a painter); and finally, Octavia’s daughter, Callie (a musician). If it sounds like it would be difficult to keep track of all these characters, don’t worry—it’s not. Their experiences and life stories are all significantly different from one another’s. And though most of the novel takes place in Madison, Wisconsin, characters also take excursions to California and Mongolia. Yet, Cherry is such a skilled writer that she deftly keeps them all in play whether they are on the page or not. Similarly, it might seem too coincidental that they are all artists, yet in different mediums. Again, it’s not. Their professions and passions seem more like occupations that have been passed down through the generations, the same way a farmer’s son would be a farmer, though perhaps switching from soybeans to corn. In fact when Callie learns that her great grandparents were musicians “it helps her to feel what she aims to do has been validated in advance (p. 22)”       

The women are connected by both family ties and their art. Like mothers in many families, Nina criticizes her surrogate daughter’s hair and clothing.  But they also understand each other’s preoccupations with art and talk art in the same way some mothers and daughters might talk recipes or gardening. One of the best explanations of art takes place when Octavia relays a conversation in which Nina tells her that being a writer is “about making something that would bring aesthetic happiness into the world.” When Octavia asks what she means by “aesthetic happiness,” Nina tells her, “’It’s what happens when you feel so fully and deeply that if you don’t share it you’ll burst. It’s what makes a person an artist (p. 66).’” Octavia “knew exactly what she meant.” Another such moment occurs later when Octavia thinks about what she and Nina have in common, “we both live in that unnamed country where there’s no borderline and no sign telling travelers which way to go (p. 87).”

Nina becomes the central  character in the last third of the book, when she is dying and reflecting on love, life, the meaning of language and art—and mourning the stories she will never have an opportunity to write.  Cherry shows how closely entwined the characters and these entities that connect them have become. On love: when she held her husband’s hand “she could no longer differentiate her hand from his. The heat of both hands radiated through their bodies (p. 113).” On life: “people were born verbs, but as they actualized their potential they became more and more gerundive, until, perhaps, they became what they loved to do (p. 151).” On language and art: “language would have to give a little, relax the rules, bend to accommodate the new, the complex. Well, that was what languages did, anyway (p. 150).” On what she would never write: “She had ideas for books and felt she owed it to the ideas to realize them (p. 137).”

It is easy to see the final chapters as a hybrid—half fiction and half essays—where Cherry, author of over twenty books, uses Nina as a mouthpiece for her own views and reflections on writing. This is particularly true in the long section where Nina quotes her own journal, in which she explores Flannery O’Connor’s famous line:  “’Anybody who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.’” Nina calls this “a great line but not entirely true in its assertion. Flannery herself could not have known this because she died at thirty-nine, too young to understand that age brings insights unavailable early on (p. 121).” Whether this is an authorial intrusion or not, Cherry’s character, Nina, could never have achieved this type of wisdom if Cherry hadn’t arrived there herself, and we, her readers, are lucky she is there.

The final chapter is slightly reminiscent of Katherine Anne Porter’s “Granny Weatherall,” in that we are in the somewhat free-floating subconscious of a bed-ridden dying woman. Yet while Porter’s story was predominately sad, Kelley’s—though both thoughtful and thought-provoking—is more of a playful romp to the afterlife, led by the ghost of Nina’s beloved dog, Virgil, who appeared “. . . on the bed, sniffing her hand. She felt the sticky scrape of his small tongue, saw dewdrops of sweat on his funny black nose (p. 155).” Virgil is soon joined by other dead dogs from Nina’s past to help escort Nina on her final journey.  A true artist to the end, Nina thinks that she wants to hold on to every moment, to “. . . stay awake, to be alert to what was happening to her. After all, you only die once—and she laughed to herself” (p. 156) as she follows the dogs into the afterlife.