Essays

Thinking of a Dream I Had: The “Formative Novel”

By posted at 11:59 am on March 3, 2009 7

So, it’s the early hours of the morning and I’m fast asleep. I dream the following:

I’m in an empty restaurant, deep in conversation with someone I’d never met before. Even in the dream, this person is meant to be a stranger – a Millions reader named Oliver. (I had recently watched a new BBC version of Oliver Twist, though the person in my dream was in no way urchinlike).

coverHe is relating to me the fascinating and sordid details of his life. After a pause, I proclaim to Oliver that I know what his “formative novel” would be: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. Though I’ve never actually heard the phrase “formative novel” before, I seemed to imply a novel whose spirit and tone most closely impacted the life that dream-Oliver would go on to lead. Not so much the plot of the novel, and not the author’s autobiography. I was apparently matching up the tone of the book with the tone of the reader’s subsequent life.

I then went on to tell Oliver that my Millions colleague Garth’s “formative novel” would be David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. (I don’t know this to be true. I suspect that Garth’s passionate appreciation of David Foster Wallace planted the notion in my head several months ago. Nevertheless, dream-Garth’s “formative novel” was Infinite Jest).

Oliver then asks me what my “formative novel” would be. I contemplate for a moment and then respond: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. This is a curious choice as I hadn’t read it until about five years ago, when I was already well into my 30s. Still, the accessibly off-kilter humor of the novel does seem a good fit. Had I read it at an impressionable age, I suspect that it would qualify as a close match for the tone of my subsequent adult personality.

The dream then took an odd turn. I was lying on my back on the sidewalk, still in conversation with Oliver, as a pack of schoolchildren and their teacher hurdled over me, never once looking down or stepping on me.

Oliver then morphed into Jack Lemmon, circa The Apartment, and I jolted awake, and reached for a notebook and pen.

So: what would your “formative novel” be? This requires not just a reading of the novel, but a certain amount of self-awareness. Try to match the tone of the novel with the tone of your life or of your personality. I guess it doesn’t matter when you read it. It’s fine if you read it later in life and retroactively match it up with your life. And, Garth, feel free to set the record straight.





Share this article

More from the Millions

7 Responses to “Thinking of a Dream I Had: The “Formative Novel””

  1. Garth Risk Hallberg
    at 12:03 pm on March 3, 2009

    No need, Andrew. As ever, dreams open up peculiar paths toward the truth.

  2. Anthony
    at 1:16 pm on March 3, 2009

    Flaubert's Sentimental Education.

  3. Sean Ferrell
    at 2:04 pm on March 3, 2009

    I'd like to say Dumas' "The Count of Monte Cristo," because I've got swashbuckling revenge fantasies, but I think, if I'm being honest, I'm much closer to Vonnegut's "Breakfast of Champions."

  4. Max
    at 2:32 pm on March 3, 2009

    Mine would have to be something by Vonnegut as well. Maybe Welcome to the Monkey House.

  5. Anonymous
    at 7:28 pm on March 3, 2009

    Roth's The Ghost Writer

  6. estelle
    at 7:31 pm on March 3, 2009

    I hesitate to offer mine up, because it's so darn uncool. I think it's Jane Eyre, though. Because: one, the heroine is the embodiment of independence with grace, stamina and principle, which I feel are good parameters for a gently progressive person. Two: the reward-for-penance narrative, whose attraction for me can no doubt be explained by my Catholic upbringing. Three: cranky, wealthy, impassioned nutball Rochester may or may not be my template for a romantic ideal. Et voila.

  7. brian
    at 8:04 am on March 7, 2009

    Lord of the Rings made me want to be a writer at 15, but my formative novel, the one that shaped the books I was later to read and the stories I would write, would be Salinger's Zooey.

Post a Response

Comments with unrelated links will be deleted. If you'd like to reach our readers, consider buying an advertisement instead.

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments that do not add to the conversation will be deleted at our discretion.