To Herodotus and Homer, dreams were divine prophesies to be interpreted by priests. Then psychoanalysts saw them as the quickest route to the unconscious. Now, science tells us that our reveries are more or less meaningless — a kitchen junk drawer, the brain’s information-dump at the end of the day.
In “The Dreamers,” Karen Thompson Walker’s second novel, dreams are something else entirely — both more dangerous and more powerful than the Greeks could have ever imagined. These augmented dreams are the result of a sleeping epidemic that starts in the fictional college town of Santa Lora, in California, then quickly spreads.
It starts on an ordinary dormitory floor: A few weeks into the fall semester, a girl fails to wake up after a night of drinking. Her roommate, the painfully shy 18-year-old Mei, becomes a dorm pariah for failing to roust her before she slips into fatal unconsciousness. But this isn’t a mere case of hitting snooze. Soon another student falls into a permanent sleep, and another and another, until the students remaining on the floor — including Mei — are quarantined in a nearby gymnasium.
Doctors rushed in to examine the patients find them with eyelids fluttering, a sign of REM sleep. They’re dreaming but not the way people typically do. Something incredible is happening: “There is more activity in these minds than has ever been recorded in any human brain — awake or asleep.” Yet the essence of the dreams remains locked inside the brains of the comatose patients.
The virus inevitably spreads, felling the town’s citizens as they relay the sickness through the ordinary contact of everyday life — touch, breath, proximity. The interconnectedness that is so essential to being part of a community also makes the townspeople fatally vulnerable.
“This is how the sickness travels best: through all the same channels as do fondness and friendship and love,” Walker writes.
Walker’s last novel, the best-selling “Age of Miracles,” featured similarly apocalyptic themes. Its protagonist was a young girl living in a future dystopia triggered by the slowing of Earth’s rotation, which wreaked havoc on the planet in unforeseen ways.
Walker’s omniscient narrator follows several sets of people weathering the crisis in Santa Lora, including Mei, who is the heart of the book. There is also a young academic couple with a newborn baby, a doctor far from home and a biology professor, whose partner is in a nursing home. Most captivating is a paranoid doomsday-prepper who lives with his two young daughters — and has been waiting for a day like this.
Walker uses evocative language to describe the almost bewitching nature of contagion: “seventeen pairs of lungs breathing the same air, seventeen mouths drinking from the same two shot glasses,” she writes about the college students unwittingly infecting one another in a dorm room. The novel reads like a thriller, with every chapter — sometimes every scene — ending on a cliffhanger.
Meanwhile, slumbering bodies pile up at the small local hospital — casualties, too. The government orders a military-enforced shutdown of the town, preventing anyone from coming or going. One thing does creep in, however: chaos.
And then, some of the sleeping start to wake. The patients’ relief of being conscious is painfully short-lived, as their lives have been irrevocably altered. As the confusion falls away, they must confront their incredible visions, and find themselves caught in a dilemma worthy of Descartes, who posited dreams and reality cannot be separated.
The people of Santa Lora who sleep no more face a choice: struggle to find a way back to themselves or remain in thrall to the beguiling, comforting, sometimes terrifying visions that held them captive. Hope, said Aristotles, is a waking dream.
Sheila McClear is a New York journalist and author.
By Karen Thompson Walker
Random House. 320 pp. $27.