Maybe it’s all the William Burroughs I’ve been reading and thinking about lately (due to my essay in Brian Alessandro & Tom Cardamone’s Fever Spores: The Queer Reclamation of William S. Burroughs), but Estlin Adams’s Sleeping As Others is very Burroughsian in nature. Although the mode of expression is different, the alienation and connection of disconnections that runs through Burroughs’s work is on fine display in this simply rendered yet complex examination of roles and rituals on many sides of the sexual spectrum.
The plot is deceptively simple. A man suddenly finds himself inhabiting the bodies of the men with whom he has sex. That is, John sleeps with someone and the next morning finds himself in the body of his paramour. He still thinks as John but looks like someone else. Like anyone caught in this situation, he has questions: where did this ability come from? How does he get rid of it? What happens to the other guys while he’s in their bodies? Do they come back when he’s gone on to someone else? As he searches for answers and finds truths, he confronts multiple parts of his personality and explores the nature of role-playing with leather fantasists, tricks with daddy issues, and even John’s straight boss, Luke. What does he find out? Uh-uh. You’ll have to read the book.
I enjoyed the density of the book. That’s not to say the prose is dense, because it’s quite readable despite the complexity of the concepts it presents. Rather, I enjoyed the intellectual weight of it. The idea of such a transition between bodies is rife with opportunities, and Adams takes advantage of as many as possible, observing his characters intimately and obsessively as he tracks John’s permutations and studies his strategies for John’s return to “normal.”
Both the premise and the follow-through of Sleeping As Others reminds me of not only Burroughs, but another of Rebel Satori’s stable of queer theorists with a tendency toward the surreal, Peter Dubé (Conjure, The Headless Man). I also kept thinking of David Cronenberg’s film version of Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. Granted, this has fewer typing cockroaches, but Adams captures the squalid, steampunk feel of the movie with seeming ease.
Sleeping As Others, then, is a fascinating look into a head that can’t stop hopping. Is it advocating or decrying promiscuity? Maybe on some levels, it’s doing both. Either way, you’ll find plenty to think about once you’ve finished.
© 2022 Jerry L. Wheeler