March 28, 2007

Acquainted With the Night: Excursions Through the World After Dark

By Baxter, Gisle M

Christopher Dewdney Acquainted with the Night: Excursions Through the World After Dark. HarperCollins $34.95

Like many among the young, black-clad, and Gothically inclined, I once tried to write a vampire novel. Since it had a contemporary setting, I was forced to realize that it was no longer unusual to go about at night. An increasing number of jobs require it, rendering the vampire's life no longer so singular, nor necessarily so lonely.

Christopher Dewdney's extended meditation on the night begins with an anecdote of a small boy creeping into the moonlit, partly wooded backyard of his family home, while everyone else was sleeping and unaware, as if climbing through a portal to a secondary world. To our news-numbed sensibilities, this might bring a thrill of horror, and yet the memory sets the tone for the book, in which Dewdney quickly claims the impossibility of a satisfactory formal definition of night beyond "the concept of periodic darkness" and so sets out to explore that concept as if both he, and his audience, were alien beings to whom it is wholly new.

To this project, he brings his skills as scientist, philosopher, cultural observer, and poet, fusing them in a work that recalls the sort of extended meditation of classical scholarship, and yet with a less assured sense of audience. The book ranges so vastly there is almost something for everyone, and indeed, while it rewards a sustained, chronological reading, it also lends itself to brief random encounters. This adaptability is appropriate, for while the periodic darkness is a function of cosmology, the notion of time is to a great extent an arbitrary artifice.

The book is divided into 14 chapters. Two serve as bookends; the remaining let each hour, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., permit exploration of a different aspect of night, including (in random order) the physiology of sleep, dreams, bedtime stories, urban nightlife, night- inspired culture (from the Gothic tale to film noir), nocturnal creatures both real and imaginary, stargazing, insomnia, light pollution, the night shift. While the sheer breadth of detail and reference might suggest a superficial overview, Dewdney makes no pretense of scholarly ambition. Ultimately, this is a poet's view, provoking consideration through its elegant turns of phrase and image. I am reminded of Louis in Interview with the Vampire, lamenting his inability to see the landscapes he imagined in the brilliance of daylight. Is Louis' failure to revel in his night vision tragic, or does appreciation of the night depend on knowledge of the day?

The lure of Acquainted with the Night is that it provokes such questions, and perhaps supplies an answer: "Night gives us permission to hope, to wish, to dream, to be whomever we wish. And beyond the city lights there is a wild night in the country, where fragrant foliage frames the long, dazzled streak of a rising moon reflected on water."


Gisle M. Baxter, Sarika P. Bose, Stephen Guy-Bray, Gillian Jerome, Kirsty Johnston, Elizabeth Maurer, Jeff Moore, Linda Morra, Ralph Sarkonak, Jack Stewart, and Michael Wells teach at the University of British Columbia.

Copyright University of British Columbia Winter 2006

(c) 2006 Canadian Literature. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.