This was an interesting one. The Dreamers is a 2019 novel by Karen Thompson Walker about a sleepy Californian college town suddenly beset by a mysterious and contagious sleeping sickness. The book follows various largely unconnected survivors and victims as the disease and panic spreads, while occasionally waxing poetic about the subjective nature of reality, memory and dreams. Its philosophical moments are also bolstered by some beautiful prose often (fittingly) described as “dreamy”.
Obviously, we’re living through a pandemic, so the plot concerning an extremely contagious airborne and often deadly disease has an added immediacy if you’re reading in 2020. There’s a scene featuring a packed supermarket in which almost no one is wearing a mask that’s painfully familiar. At this point, the threat is well-established (several people even succumb to the illness as the viewpoint characters watch) and yet hardly anyone is taking even the most basic precautions. If not for its publication date, you’d think this was a dig at certain well-documented responses to Covid-19. Apparently, Thompson Walker had little faith in the general public. A recurring theme is the widespread and general reluctance to face the reality of the disaster; there’s even reference to conspiracy theorists trending on social media with #SantaLoraHoax. And I liked that the bravery of medical staff and volunteers is highlighted; they frequently fall victim to the disease.
The Sleeping Sickness is a extremely creepy. I initially thought it sounded fairly innocuous, probably thanks to fairy tales featuring magical sleep. In The Dreamers reality sets in with dehydration and organs failing without medical attention, not to mention bedsores and the inherent risk of falling asleep while, say, driving, or fixing a leaking pipe. Sleep walking can also prove deadly. And then, of course, there’s the terrifying prospect of trying to distinguish between normal fatigue and the sickness. In that sense, The Dreamers works really well; Thompson Walker does a great job of building that tension and sense of creeping doom.
I’ve seen some reviewers complain about the ‘detached’ narration, but I think it works in that it heightens the sense of inevitable, uncaring fate. We follow the lives of a number of characters, all equally vulnerable to the disease. To me, the split narrative and ‘vignette’ style chapters read a little like scattered news reports, checking in on disparate story threads and individuals. It gives you a sense of a fait accompli that, to me, was chilling. It also means we see people known to one set of characters popping up as anonymous victims or survivors in other storylines, which heightens the impression of a real, wide-spread disaster. A leashed dog is seen with his owner in one scene, then in the next is wondering loose. It’s even lamp-shaded as the viewpoint character wonders what happened to the hand that held the leash. Since we’ve already seen the owner of that hand, there’s an extra layer of pathos to that stray dog and its unknown family; they’re not unknown, not to us, the readers, at least.
The potential subjectivity of reality and dreams is also discussed. I enjoyed the smug know-it-all college student being immediately roasted for even hinting at philosophy because he definitely deserved it and needed to be brought down a peg or two. But it is interesting and relevant in the context of a sleeping disorder. That ‘detached’ narrator is used again to great effect as the narrative slips between characters who might or might not be dreaming. We get hints sometimes, and outright confirmation at others, but really, who’s to say the (relatively) happy ending isn’t also a dream?
I did have issues with the ending, though, which touches on the ‘science’ of the book. I’m not going to be a stickler in that regard, because it’s fiction and I don’t know enough about the subject to find any of it particularly jarring. It does seem weird, though, that *SPOILER* the disease just goes away. In-universe, that seems to be the end of it, but there’s no reason to suppose it wouldn’t come back. Instead, the story just peters out without much resolution. And there had been reference early on to certain infected people escaping the immediate confines of the town. Why don’t we hear about the sickness spreading further afield? There’s never any real explanation about where it came from, either, other than a few ominous references to the drying up lake and dying forests. Though, to be fair, Thompson Walker may have just been trying to make a point about the link between climate change and pandemics. It’s a worthy message, though its kind of buried amongst everything else.
I thought the characters we focused on were mostly likeable and facing personal circumstances diverse enough to be interesting. There’s the devoted dad to a newborn baby, the lonely and socially-awkward Chinese-American college student, the psychiatrist stranded in the infected zone, the pair of children trying to survive without parents. I did think Mei (the college student) was screwed over rather a lot, though. She hitches her wagon to Matthew, the aforementioned know-it-all college student, I guess she feels a kinship with him since he’s also an outsider in their dorm building? Honestly, other than that it’s hard to see why she puts up with him. And ultimately, there are some Implications about her reliance on Matthew that I found sad and infuriating. And there were some oddly judgmental moments in which Matthew’s sudden (egotistical) zeal for heroics and her own more cautious approach are implicitly compared. The characters don’t really change or grow, either, beyond gaining a more jaded, world-weary perspective on the world and people around them. Instead, they just survive. Though, in pandemic literature, that’s probably enough.
Still, I haven’t read anything like The Dreamers before. (Though apparently this isn’t an entirely unprecedented concept, so I’ll have to check out the other literature out there.) It wasn’t exactly ‘gripping’ in terms of story impetus, since it does wander around between characters, but it was absorbing in how it builds up the world of the quarantined, disease-ridden town. Though whether or not you’d want to read it right now might depend on how adversely you’ve been affected by present circumstances.
Alternative Title: Sleepless In Santa Lora?
This is how the sickness travels best: through all the same channels as do fondness and friendship and love.