This post was originally part of InSpyNoMo.
Not infrequently my brain will fill in or substitute details for things until I become quite convinced that what I thought was there really is what’s there. The discovery of the truth is either hilarious or disappointing. In this case I have been convinced since I put this book down that it was called The Shades of Sleep, which I think rather mysterious and almost supernatural. It’s not called that at all, and while it doesn’t change the story itself, I have to admit a bit of me crumbled when I learnt the truth.
The Shapes of Sleep (1962) by JB Priestley is more an international detective story than a spy spy story, even so it feels like a proper example of the genre. The spy in question is Ben Sterndale, investigative reporter and cynic. He is a spy insofar as he doesn’t believe the bullshit he’s fed by powerful people, and can work out enough of what’s really going on to produce hunches that get him into trouble. Yet his investigating does indeed require him to delve into the act of espionage and in this story, it brings him face to face with actual secret agents.
He’s hired by an advertising agency to find out who stole an important document from one of the director’s desk. The document was sold to the director who, since the theft, has begun to realise it was probably stolen in the first place and really just wants out of the situation before the major shareholders find out what he’s done. Sterndale’s initial lead is in hospital (following a car ‘accident’) and before he dies cries out about the shapes of sleep. Though Sterndale isn’t quite sure what that means, he decides to follow his next to Germany, to find out. There, a number of coincidences gets him caught up with a group of British secret agents who believe he’s a dirty Commie and would have had him arrested if not for their leader who is probably the only real spy in the plot. Major Churston-Spenser is actually a sort of free agent, who fakes loyalty to three sides and plays them off each other. His only real interest is to make enough money selling phoney secrets to be able to escape the South America and retire.
In any case, Sterndale eventually uncovers the fact that the man at the heart of it all is one Professor Voss, experimental psychologist and communist who had been working for some time in West Germany as a double agent for the Other Side. He had been working on a method of sending subliminal propaganda messages via certain shapes. Voss kills himself once he begins to feel his secret is out, leaving Sterndale to scoop a vital sheaf of paper which document how it can be put into practice.
The obvious thing of interest here, of course, is that Sterndale is sent out by an unsuspecting ad agency to find a tool that would allow that agency to psychologically manipulate the public into believing whatever the ‘shapes of sleep’ made them. This all suggests a deep-rooted distrust, distaste even, in the media and the power of hidden propaganda on the average citizen. As far as Sterndale reckons, the ad agency has no more claim to this power than the Other Side (and through a series of convenient events neither actually gains possession). He clearly dislikes the secrecy propagated by the Cold War and how susceptible it makes us to ‘behaving like hypnotised sheep’.
What is also interesting is what results after the traditional thriller angle peters out, two chapters from the end. We are suddenly left with a genuine Socratic dialogue in which the position of women in society and how the relationship between the sexes is effectively a series of infiltrations coming in from either side in an attempt to understand each other. No conclusion is really reached, but it’s clear that Sterndale (and perhaps Priestley?) is left wondering whether men haven’t spent most of history crapping all over the human race.
The correlation between equality between the sexes, advertising and propaganda is an interesting one, particularly today. This isn’t quite what Priestley is getting at, certainly, but when you think about the depiction of women in advertising, of male-female relationships, the depiction of a heteronormative world, of the ‘alternative cultures’ within a heteronormative social landscape, you have to wonder if these shapes of sleep haven’t been put to work after all.