The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker
Random House, 2019
A speculative future formed the backdrop of The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker’s widely acclaimed first novel in 2012. The main character in that work is a twelve year old girl whose coming of age story is told in the context of a global disaster that puzzles the scientific community. In her newest novel entitled The Dreamers, Walker uses similar themes and narrative techniques to create an equally gripping story. This haunting tale closely follows individual characters as they attempt to cope with a potentially global crisis, but the dystopian aspect of the story is not as extreme.
A small college town in Southern California is overrun with a strange new illness: the victims fall into a deep sleep characterized by the fluttering eyelids of dreamers. The dreamers are kept alive by intravenous feeding but their numbers increase exponentially as the spread of the virus becomes airborne, from a dozen in the first week to five hundred in three weeks and a thousand in five weeks. One of the first victims is a college student who is pregnant and the growth of the fetus is described in detail as the story unfolds. The novel also describes how her roommates, her teachers, and several townspeople are affected by the disease. The middle age father of two young girls who once dreamt of a future disaster filled their basement with emergency supplies that save their lives after he falls asleep from the illness. A young father whose wife falls ill must care for their newborn infant and treasures the moments of cradling her in his arms. When his wife awakens and the family is whole again, he realizes that “the things that could have happened but did not are just as crucial to a life as all the things that do.” In the protective womb of the sleeping student the fetus grows “at a perfectly predictable rate, like the intricate ticking of the most delicate clock on earth.” Many of these individual stories intersect each other in unpredictable but significant ways.
The town is soon overwhelmed, unable to cope with the emergency, and the National Guard is called in to help. There aren’t enough doctors, nurses, or soldiers to care for the dreamers and some die of dehydration, malnutrition, or heart failure. When the hospital is too small to house all the victims, the college library is converted into isolation wards, only to be become a deathtrap when it catches fire. Fires also break out in abandoned houses. The food supply dwindles and roads leading to the town are barricaded to prevent outsiders from entering. Military Humvees patrol the deserted streets as media helicopters record the disaster from above.
What makes the novel so engaging is the use of an omniscient narrator who, like the helicopters that hover overhead, views the crisis from afar but also reveals the intimate thoughts and feelings of characters. There are descriptions of past disasters that plagued the town, like drought, forest fires, and yellow fever, but also insights into what the dreamers are experiencing. “Some dreamed of their youth. Some dreamed of old age. Some dreamed of days that might have been, all the lives they did not live. Or that, in some other world, they did.” While the dreamers have visions of the past and future, some of the non-dreamers have nightmares and premonitions.
And then, after several months, one of the dreamers awakens, confused and disoriented “like a traveler from some faraway land.” In the weeks that follow more dreamers awake and the virus slowly disappears. Only the pregnant student continues to sleep, past the birth of her child and into her twelfth month of dreaming. She insists after waking that she experienced the birth of a second child in the future. Other victims claim they had similar dreams that were like premonitions followed by a confusion of memories.
The narrator tells us “There is no specific part of the brain that measures time.” But the flow of time and the connection between past, present, and future are a major theme of the book. Towards the end Walker expands it to include the multiverse. “…how maybe everything that could have happened has happened…in its own parallel universe.” The reader, like the dreamers who have awakened, is left wondering which life is a dream and which universe is real. The author doesn’t give a definitive answer, but in describing how individual characters react to what happens around them, she stresses how important it is to value the here and now. She seems to be saying pay attention to the present or you will lose any sense of the past and the future. The book is suffused with elegant prose and beautiful descriptions of what it’s like to appreciate the small moments of life, like the joys and anxieties of being a parent. And, as if to reinforce that insight, the novel is dedicated to the two daughters Walker gave birth to while writing it.