The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker
Random House, 2019; 303 pp
Reviewed by Sarah J. Schlosser
Whether or not Karen Thompson Walker’s latest novel The Dreamers is an escape or a nightmare depends on the character experiencing the plague of sleeping sickness that has taken over the fictional Southern California college town of Santa Lora. For the character of college freshman Mei, who finds her self socially isolated, the sickness provides a level-set and alleviation of pain of cliques and judgment. For middle-schooler Sara, the sickness exacerbates the paranoia that her father is prone to, even though his survivalist preparations help Sara and her sister make through the duration of the illness. Thompson Walker balances the relief and escape that sleep brings with the trouble that it causes, but most of the plot stems from what kind of struggle the victims place on their caregivers; a specialist studying the psychiatric effects of the disease is quarantined from her young daughter miles away, parents of a newborn startle each other awake on a daily basis, unsure if each of them has caught the illness or if they are just exhausted from taking care of the baby, and when a wildfire threatens the town, there is a panic of how to move so may patients with so fewer and fewer support staff, who keep dropping off themselves, susceptible by exhaustion and proximity.
Even the fact that this book is a novel is embraced by Thompson Walker as its own character in it; she layers in the fact that the local middle school is rehearsing Our Town (Sara has a prominent part), a light allegory to the characters addressing their lives before and after a “death” of sorts, and once the sickness draws national attention the story is addressed from a viewpoint of possible “fake news," possible government conspiracies, hoaxes, paid actors. The doubt even drifts down to the actual existence of the town itself:
Maybe, a few begin to say, Santa Lora is not even a real town. Has anyone ever heard of this place? And look it up: there’s no such saint as Santa Lora. It’s made up. The whole damn place is probably just a set on some back lot in Culver City. Don’t those houses look a little too quaint?
Don’t be naive, say others—they don’t need a set. All the footage is probably just streaming out of some editing room in the valley. If you look closely, you can tell that some of those houses repeat.
Now just ask yourself, they say, who stands to benefit from all this. It always comes back to money… Just watch: in a few months, Big Pharma will be selling the vaccine.
The residents of Santa Lora suffer from a level of hopelessness and fear of unable to control the trajectory of their lives even before the illness emerges; once it does, they find themselves creating a new reality that the outside world loudly questions and disputes with a complete lack of empathy. Thompson Walker tests our empathy as readers in the face of this torment; would we doubt if we saw this in the news, or roll our eyes, too? What level of wonder would have to be reached in order to doubt what was occurring, or how much could we take from stories, even stories shot from helicopters and relayed to journalists over the phone? Even the journalists can’t get up close to this story, much like we trust a writer to give us a novel at a distance, a story we accept, whether to escape our own world, to learn about each other’s struggle, or to succumb to someone else’s supposing of a nightmare. This reader questioned the narrative more as she read it (is more and more of the book a dream?), and simultaneously gave herself over to higher reaches of wonder and possibility, page by page, in the face of a standard of cynicism.