Weak in Comparison to Dreams

James Elkins

For years, Samuel Emmer has monitored bacteria levels in drinking water for the small city of Guelph.

He is content to focus on dangerous life-threatening single-celled organisms as his grasp on his own life recedes—and with it, family and friends. To be sure, it is more than a little surprising when Samuel learns that he has been appointed to the city’s Zoo Feasibility Committee. Even more so, that he is being tasked with interacting not just with animals, but human beings. His assignment: travel to zoos around the world and gather information on the stereotypical behavior of animals in their enclosures—the city of Guelph aspiring commendably, if naively, to a cruelty-free habitat for its animals. It is in Tallinn, Estonia, that the dreams start for Samuel. He is in a vast wooded landscape; there is a fire burning in the distance; and it is coming his way… 

Weak in Comparison to Dreams
, by the historian and art critic James Elkins, is like no other novel you have ever read, even as certain inspirations, from Sebald to Tokarczuk, are clear. With an astounding breadth of knowledge and playful courage, Weak in Comparison to Dreams reignites our love for the ambitious novel with experimentation that never lacks intention, and whose empathetic scope explores the deepest aspects of our individual humanity.

Praise for Weak in Comparison to Dreams

"WEAK IN COMPARISON TO DREAMS is a novel that will haunt its readers even as it enchants. An astonishing book; mesmerizing, dreamlike, phantastic, grimly real. James Elkins has written a book of shimmering depth. His remarkable, expansive, and materializing imagination at once produces a toppling sense of vertigo and a deep pleasure that so many connections, carelessly unseen, exist all around us. Never before have I felt such empathy for a diagram, nor could I have anticipated such fascination with the compelling descriptions (and depictions) of musical compositions about pain and suffering."
Pippa Skotnes, author of Lamb of God and the Book of Iterations

"Erudite and immensely entertaining, WEAK IN COMPARISON TO DREAMS takes the novel where it has never gone before. James Elkins probes what it means to be human. He has written a powerful, sometimes angry, and, yes, wise book. I was hooked from the first page."
Terry Pitts, creator and author of the blog Vertigo

"Every now and again, a book presents a new type of narrative that alters the way we see literature. James Elkins’s WEAK IN COMPARISON TO DREAMS… surprises as much as it intrigues."
Kimberly Brooks, artist and author of The New Oil Painting

"Experimental in the best sense of the word…"
Eva Schuermann, author of Seeing as Practice: Philosophical Investigations into the Relation Between Sight and Insight

"WEAK IN COMPARISON TO DREAMS is an experimental feast, an illuminated palimpsest, a labour of intellectual love. It will push and pull and ask you ‘just how do you think you read?’"
Maria Fusco, author of History of the Present

"Reveries, dreams, reflections and memories drive this Sebald-inspired narrative through combinations of word and image… Elkins’s novel offers a profoundly provocative exercise in visual thinking."
Hanneke Grootenboer, author of The Pensive Image: Art as a Form of Thinking

"Elegantly written and imaginatively intricate as well as subtle in its capacity to induce readers to become involved in the details of a solitary consciousness."
Charles Altieri, author of Reckoning with Imagination: Wittgenstein and the Aesthetics of Literary Experience

"A moving and profound contemplation on images in relation to dreams, memory, and music….an unbelievably rich and haunting story."
Charlotte Klonk, author of Terror: Wenn Bilder zu Waffen werden (Terror: When Images Become Weapons)

"The long life of Samuel Emmer gives all-world art critic James Elkins an epic canvas on which to entertainingly dramatize the ethics of zoos, the music of contemporary composers, and the lives of amoebas, all in twitchy, often hilarious, high-IQ prose. But all you need to know is that J.S. Bach rocks and James Elkins rolls."
James McManus, author of Positively Fifth Street

"WEAK IN COMPARISON TO DREAMS is unlike any book I have ever read: a fascinating mixture of introspective realism and dreamlike surrealism, of text and image…. Elkins has created a highly original, unique literary work."
Wojciech Drag, author of Collage Literature in the Twenty-First Century

"WEAK IN COMPARISON TO DREAMS is an extraordinary arthroscopic view into a man whose life is liquefying, becoming a chrysalis. Deftly drawing on the sciences and the world of visual representation, it is a story full of wit, tragedy and surprise…"
Kate Joyce, author of Metaphysics

"A stunning achievement, framing profound questions of memory, meaning, and moral responsibility within a highly inventive literary structure. Fundamentally, this is a book about being lost."
Jonathan Anderson, coauthor (with William Dyrness) of Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism

"A lucid account of a sleepwalking soul becoming increasingly lost as he wrestles with unresolvable conflicts…"
Johanna Drucker, author of Subjective Meteorology and All The Books I Never Wrote

"Elkins presents a series of nested boxes, knowing full well that none will provide a pat explanation of the self, for it is the quest for understanding itself that is offered for us to contemplate."
Anna Arnar, author of The Book as Instrument: Stéphane Mallarmé

"Never unequivocally symbolic, the meta-referentiality of the book will thrill readers who admire Nabokov or Pynchon, the bleak atmosphere those who love Kafka, the narrative flow of naturalism those who like Don DeLillo."
Mark Staff Brandl, artist and author of A Philosophy of Visual Metaphor in Contemporary Art

"WEAK IN COMPARISON TO DREAMS tells the moving story of Dr. Samuel Emmer’s life, his concerns about animal welfare, his dreams about fire and the instability of his self. There is a great generosity of imagination in Elkins’s writing…"
flowerville, author of fortlaufen.blogspot.com

"WEAK IN COMPARISON TO DREAMS introduces entirely new language games. What first appear as illustrations of zoos turn out to be the labyrinths of our own human behavior, by which we pursue our daily lives and cling to the allegories that make us believe in our own ascendency. Manifold dialogues between pictures and words line the verges of the protagonist’s path, ultimately pointing to the few remains of a life."
Lukas Schmutzer, author of “Between Word and Work: On Marianne Fritz’s Whose Language You Do Not Understand”

"Elkins’s novel breaks down the boundaries between word and image, celebrating the intertwining of text and pictures, inviting readers to engage in a new form of storytelling…"
Si Han, author of A Chinese Word on Image

"In this encyclopedic novel innocent zoo inspections spiral into a bubbling maelstrom of madness, lethargically engulfing kaleidoscopes of scientific lore, sheet music, and photographs of dreams."
Evelina Domnitch, author of Orbihedron

"A mesmerizing synesthetic experience and great intellectual pleasure."
Philipp Weiss, author of Am Weltenrand sitzen die Menschen und lachen

"The constellations traced in the reader’s mind by Elkins’s novel in the course of its exhilaratingly irregular orbit through manifold registers of genre and tone will remain fixed there long after the glare of lesser literary fiction has faded."
Douglas Robertson, translator of The Rest Is Slander: Five Stories by Thomas Bernhard

"Elkins enters the field with an exhilarating, surefooted, and profound book."
Charles Green, artist and author of Peripheral Vision and The Third Hand

"The exceptional achievement of WEAK IN COMPARISON TO DREAMS… can only be defined as a new model of the encyclopedic novel."
Jan Baetens, author of My Life to Live

"A fascinating journey… an endless literary feast."
Miguel Ángel Hernández, author of Escape Attempt and Anoxia

"Weak in Comparison to Dreams offers a profusion of visual and philosophical imagination... A deeply unconventional debut, it's an invitation into a teeming imagination. He has managed to suffuse this book with an unsettling essence..."
John Williams, Washington Post