The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker
At a small California college, a strange illness has broken out on one floor of a co-ed dorm. Some of the students have fallen asleep and can’t be woken. Doctors and psychiatrists are baffled. All they know is that these students are dreaming and their brain activity is off the charts.
As the unknown disease keeps spreading, the dorm is quarantined, then the hospital, and eventually the entire college town.
Citizens are panicked as they worry about themselves and their families. It seems like just a matter of time before the whole town is asleep. Some of the quarantined people are visitors and they can’t get out, while family members of the sleeping students and townspeople can’t get in to see their loved ones.
The story focuses on several students, faculty, and residents:
- Rebecca, a freshman from a very religious homeschooling family who is reveling in the freedom of her first semester at college.
- Mei, Rebecca’s Chinese roommate, an outsider who just can’t click with the other kids on her hall.
- Matthew, a freshman who sees everything in the context of his strong sense of ethics.
- Ben and Annie, visiting college professors who’ve survived a young but rocky marriage and who’ve recently had a baby.
- Nathaniel, a biology professor who is carrying for his partner who is in a nursing home.
- Sara, a young girl whose father, a prepper and conspiracy theorist, is the first to recognize the potential danger of the outbreak.
- Catherine, a psychiatrist and single mother who leaves her young daughter to come help at the hospital in California.
The best part of The Dreamers (2018) is the many intimate little domestic scenes that Karen Thompson Walker creates for her characters. They are carefully and lovingly crafted, making each character seem alive. I could feel Rebecca’s sense of wonder as she drank with her new friends, Mei’s despair at her isolation from the group, the tension between Ben and Annie as they care for their newborn, and Sara’s conflicted feelings about her father’s wacky ideas. It was beautiful to watch Ben gradually take on his role as father, and both wonderful and tragic to watch Matthew living out his ethics in a way that is heroic until suddenly, it wasn’t. These were my favorite parts of the story.
Unfortunately, all of these intimate little scenes, though admirable and often moving, don’t quite add up to a convincing plot. I made notes about the scenes I admired but, after finishing the book, it’s not clear how some of them contributed to the plot other than to make the reader wonder if this is the moment that character will fall asleep. After 250 pages of this type of suspense, the effect begins to wear thin. I wouldn’t mind watching these characters worry and wait while they do their daily tasks, if that worrying and waiting had been accompanied by more (for me, the reader) than just an appreciation of the characterization and the ever-present sense of dread. I needed more, perhaps some sharp insights about human nature, some humor, some stunning metaphors, a little more to think about while waiting.
That’s not to say there’s nothing to think about in The Dreamers. I was challenged by the way Walker let Matthew’s utilitarian philosophy unfold. It’s an interesting and important perspective on moral dilemmas such as the Trolley Problem. While many people would say that a utilitarian approach to such dilemmas is most ethical, Matthew’s behavior calls that idea into question. I was also struck by something that happens to one of the characters at the end of the novel – she has a dream so vivid that it becomes, in essence, a memory, and that memory leads to despair. That is an interesting idea. These two events (Matthew’s actions and the other character’s dream/memory) happen in the last few pages of The Dreamers. I needed more thoughts like this throughout the novel.
In the end, Walker leaves us with many questions that don’t get answered but probably should have been. Why did the house blow up? What did the climate (mentioned several times) have to do with anything? Why are people having the same dreams? Why are some people sleep-walking? (There are other questions, but I don’t want to spoil the plot.) I do not need to be spoon-fed all the answers, and I don’t actually need all the answers, but in this case, I don’t think there are answers. Walker seems to be questioning the nature of dreams and reality, but then leaving everything up to our own interpretation. After all the build-up, the hints, and the suspense, I was hoping for something profound, a big idea, something science-fictiony (especially because it was mentioned that dreamers’ brains were so extremely active) but nothing came. For me, there just wasn’t enough pay-off from The Dreamers.
Random House Audio’s edition of The Dreamers is beautifully read by Cassandra Campbell.