Great Dream of Heaven is a collection of eighteen short-stories by famous playwright Sam Shepard. The author himself calls them "stories," warning the reader against any tempting classification of the pieces into type or genre. In fact, Sam Shepard’s stories are bare windows opening suddenly on familiar—or not so familiar—scenes, with uncouth sensations, raw impressions, hurting feelings rushing in like some gusts of cutting wind stopping the breath of the lonely wanderer on a rarely trodden shore of words. So sudden, so painful and yet, so well known.
The remedy man, with his strange ways and quiet wisdom, teaching gelding and boy alike the curbing lessons of life; the splits and splinters of husband-and-wife-dom, following the way of all flesh; the avatars of desecrated relics saved from the 1989 Berlin wall-quake; a mother’s ashes accidentally blurring the sight and filling the lungs of her devoted bird-rescuer of a daughter; some Betty’s cats and the predicament of all other what’s-wrong-with-them aliens; the absence of and the yearning for the feel of a woman’s touch in a men’s home; the writing on the wall turning ironically into the sign over chicken wings in a junk restaurant; and so on.
And still, despite a growing sense of impending catastrophes and the retrospective horror of validated tragedies, the show of writing must go on. What Shepard draws into the text is but a brief outlining of characters, delineated by their vernacular, their sometimes apocalyptic speech, the irreducible incommunicability presiding over their attempts at dialogue, howsoever fragmented, the gradually diminishing prospects smothering their thin paper-lives. Detail, detail everywhere, and nowhere wholeness. The stories are like first drafts, off-cuts that crave integrity, rushes or trailers leaving one so unsatisfied. Nothing have, nothing gain. Stories of loss, stories of want. All the lonely souls that haunt them are solitary figures, losing themselves in the crude lies of impossible dreams, forsaken and adrift, forever estranged from an unknowable, elusive American Dream. But can the dream still be alive? Can there even still be a dream?
Can the moral isolation of those ghosts of people ever not develop into utter despair? Even sex is secretive, absurd, lethal. Thanatos has won over Eros. So ultimately, why have these stories been put together? Has almighty writing tried to infuse aesthetic harmony in what necessity had shattered and pulled apart? Shepard’s attempt at unifying the stories as a whole only stresses their fragmentation, their lack of construction, their falling into pieces the moment the reader tries to make sense out of them. For they become all the more elusive as one starts measuring their incompleteness. All dreams end up being shattered, even that Great Dream of Heaven.
The title story, Great Dream of Heaven, stages two lifelong friends now old men sharing “the same little cinder-block bungalow.” Some sort of implicit competition had been going on between them, as to who would each morning be the “earlier” riser of the two, the prize being for the winner-of-the-day an elating feeling of fulfillment and well-being. To Sherman, that sensation was like some light flooding his body, reminding him of “a dream he’d had of heaven when he was about ten years old.”
But the elation of winning also brought about the long trail of unanswered questions. Blinding though that light was, it did not mask the desert of everyday lives revolving round the fixed points of home, the dusty road and Denny’s. To every heaven there must be a hell… to every light, some darkness. What peopled the ever-eluding heaven of Sherman, the lost paradise of his “Rem-dreams,” that Eden-like garden prior to the fall?
The dramatic irony of Elizabethan tragedies suddenly takes hold of speech and lets the gloom of impending catastrophe cast its shadows over the text. If so disparaged, woman must inescapably be the tragic flaw and “the enginer” will once more be “hoist with his own petard.” Faye, the waitress at Denny’s, swinging her generous hips from table to table, with “her heartbreaking smile sweeping across the multitudes,” “the same radiant beam of kindness” touching all her eyes set on. Faye, the apple of their eyes. Faye the snake hurling the blessed pair away from their earthly paradise into the unfathomable voids of their respective “aloneness.” Faye the creature of night who stole the light from Sherman’s dream and left Dean a pillar of salt. So it goes. “Sherman never turned round. He just kept walking” [p. 139].
On the road again.
After the brief enthusiasm of the first discoveries, the amused reading of the first stories, the reader becomes progressively aware of that portentous sense of doom hanging over the text like the “cardboard sign” over “the chicken wings.” Life is not what the reader is reading. Life is what is happening while we are reading. So the sign says … [“Living the Sign”]. Yet, outside these plain truths, can the reader find any meaning to all this? Unlike the narrator in “Living the Sign,” we seem to know who wrote the texts, we think we know why the short stories are so splattered with isolation and despair, but shall we ever know why they all stop short of an ending and retreat into nothingness?
Those are the last lines of the short stories, so final, so hopeless, that all the reader remembers is that pervading sense of absolute negativity that denies any meaning to writing itself and cannot possibly leave any imprint. As the stories enter the collection, so does their simultaneous disintegration. Great Dream of Heaven is no literary work of escapism; it is a dive in the void, a vain battle against emptiness and meaninglessness.
So, Mr Shepard, can these stories still be called stories?
One is left wondering…