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What dreams may come – ‘The Dreamers’

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In a world where sleep may be never-ending, what manner of dreams may come?

That’s the foundational question posed by Karen Thompson Walker’s literary sci-fi novel “The Dreamers” (Random House, $27) … but it’s a question with many answers. Through an inexplicable epidemic, Walker offers up an illustration of how tenuous our grasp on a collective reality truly is. We all see the world differently whether we’re awake or asleep - and it doesn’t take much to make everything change.

It all begins in a room in a dormitory of a small, isolated California college. A young woman drowsily returns to her room after a late-night romp with one of her fellow first-years. She climbs into bed, too tired to even shed her shoes … and she doesn’t wake up. Despite the efforts of her timid roommate Mei and the rest of the floor, she will not be roused.

It’s a strange case, mystifying everyone. But when a second girl cannot be awakened, and a third, things begin to spiral; authorities soon have the dorm on lockdown in an effort at quarantine. But even in a small town like Santa Lora, there are too many vectors – and this ailment, whatever it is, is effortlessly contagious.

Chaos ensues as more and more people succumb to sleep, the illness spreading with astonishing speed. And while authorities struggle to deal with the sleepers, those who are still awake must find their own way through.

There are the two little girls left confused and afraid by the words and actions of their paranoid survivalist father. There’s the young couple, new to both Santa Lora and to parenthood, trapped by both the outbreak and their own unhealed hurts. The doctor specializing in psychiatric disorders, who comes to help investigate, only to wind up stuck in the exposure zone and the college professor whose longtime partner is one of the few examples of the disease’s positive possibilities.

And Mei, set loose into a wider world from which she has long been largely isolated alongside Matthew, a dormmate who manages to be both idealistic and cynical in that unique way only new college students can.

All of them trapped at the epicenter of an inexplicable disease, one for which no doctor is prepared. All of them left to deal with the crumbling of civility, their lives upended by hastily-erected barricades and suddenly omnipresent soldiers; roads humming with military Humvees and skies buzzing with helicopters. All of them hoping not to be next to fall asleep, hoping that somehow, someone will save them from the encroachment of never-ending dreams.

Because make no mistake – the constant twitching of eyelids and other indicators show that the afflicted are indeed dreaming. They are dreaming harder and longer than any human was ever meant to dream - and not all dreams are created equal.

“The Dreamers” is a lovely and weird book. The best science fiction finds ways to address significant themes through the freedom granted by its tropes. Walker proves particularly adept, unpacking complex ideas about relationship dynamics – parental, filial and romantic alike – through the frighteningly fast spread of the sleep sickness and the resulting slow-motion crumbling of Santa Rosa’s social structures.

Walker’s stylistic choices allow us multiple viewpoints into the burgeoning chaos brought forth by the descent into extended slumber; short chapters careen from perspective to perspective, allowing us our own frenetic glimpses of fear, determination and despair. We see the consequences as more and more people tumble into slumber, leaving an ever-dwindling number of people on the outside desperately searching for meaning – and answers.

There’s a haunting quality to “The Dreamers.” The gentility of its prose grants the element of surprise to narrative twists and emotional power; Walker eases you into moments that elevate your level of engagement slowly, subtly. Nothing is telegraphed, yet everything flows seamlessly. Even with the constantly-shifting POV, everything unfolds with a deft smoothness.

Compelling characters, genuine emotional stakes, thoughtful themes and a central premise rich with potential – “The Dreamers” checks all the boxes. Walker has written a hell of a book, one whose propulsive narrative sense marries nicely with the relative understatement of its themes. When your book digs into ideas without ever superseding story, you’ve got something special.

You’ve got “The Dreamers.”

Last modified on Wednesday, 23 January 2019 00:31

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