At least once a year, it feels like the news highlights an outbreak of some dangerous disease. Very often it’s contagious, with disastrous side effects and varying numbers of fatalities. I myself was quarantined to the University of Delaware campus during the outbreak of swine flu in 2009. The Center for Disease Control was brought in, and the school’s field house became a medical center. Luckily, I and the people I knew were unaffected beyond our inability to leave campus. But still, to look back and remember that bizarre episode as I write this feels surreal. Karen Thompson Walker manages to capture that same feeling in The Dreamers. Through a methodical narrative, Walker details the slow spread of the disease, the inability of the authorities to explain it, and their eventual quarantine of a small American town in the northwest.
The Dreamers starts with college kids coming back drunk from a night of partying. None are the wiser as one of the young women sleeps through the morning. As the day wears on, she does not answer texts. As they come to her room in order to rally her for another night of partying, they find they cannot wake her up. She is taken away by the hospital, and the other students console each other. Over the next several days the students learn that she died in her sleep. Slowly, other students in the dorm succumb to the same condition. The campus isolates the dormitory, effectively sealing the students in. As time passes, more students across the campus and later the town fall ill with the sleeping sickness. No one knows what to do, and the only treatment seems to be life support until they can wake – if they ever do.
The book follows several sets of people affected by the disease in different parts of Santa Lora, all at different stages in their life. Often Walker pairs her characters off, with one suffering from the disease and the other dealing with the repercussions. Unfortunately, despite this interesting take on storytelling I never felt particularly investing in any of the characters.. I got the two male protagonists confused, and I only felt attached to two individuals because they were among the first characters introduced. It’s not that our cast was uninteresting, but that I saw them as just the vehicle to the tell the story. It helped that Walker highlighted that the disease affected people of different social standings, showcasing their different reactions and their ability to survive the outbreak and subsequent quarantine. My favorite dynamic was between Mei and her dorm-mate Matthew. Their budding intimate relationship was shown in counterpoint to their very starkly contrasting outlooks. Mei and Matthew felt the most fleshed-out as characters, due to their muted and often touch and go young romance along with their relentlessly emotional discussions about what they can do as the world falls apart around them.
For me, the selling point of The Dreamers is the procedural style that Walker forces the reader to sit through as this small town slowly becomes threatening to the rest of the country. The disease starts small with the college students and eventually breaks out into a nursing home. Doctors and medical researchers are brought in, and no explanation or cure can be found. Many of the victims do not wake up, regardless of drugs administered. Oddly, they are all experiencing high brain functions, suggesting they are all dreaming. Still, this explains nothing to the professionals. As more people fall asleep, the national guard is called into blockade the single road out of the mountain town. Walker is blunt about the response, often citing other periods in American history in which the government was brutal in its methods to prevent further contamination. It shows that Walker did her research when writing this book, as everything felt very realistic.
The surreal and foreboding tone of The Dreamers easily kept me invested until the final pages, as Walker’s writing read almost like a clinical report of the events. Often, entire chapters were just a statement of facts: “The disease appeared in [INSERT BUILDING HERE] building, infecting [X NUMBER OF] victims.” The number of beds being filled and slow attrition of medical personnel succumbing to the disease felt like a losing battle. It helped build an apprehension that I had a hard time shaking. Even the chapters that followed a character had a detached feeling to them. I do not know if this was Walker’s intention, but I often felt like I was supposed to be unattached, so I could understand the whole picture instead of focusing on a single character’s struggle to leave the town. It was paralyzing in a way I did not expect. On top of that, almost every ramp-up in the response to the disease was paired with a story of a true historical episode, heightening the realism and the dread that a cure may never be found.
Unfortunately, beyond the plodding descent into controlled chaos, the disease itself did not feel like it added anything to the narrative. I was mostly intrigued by the dreaming aspect when I first heard of the book, hoping it would play an important part in the progression of events. Unfortunately, the dreaming did not seem to play an important role in the narrative and it was a bit disappointing. After a week of thinking about it, I still could not find a connection that resonated with me, but it was something I gradually became okay with. Others may find something in the dreams that adds to their experience of the story, but unfortunately, I was left wanting. The disease was not the star so much as it was the instigator and catalyst to the greater story.
In the end, Walker’s focus on the community, the town, the society, and the people that comprise those institutions makes this book worthwhile. It is a story that has been told before, but the tone and the research backing up the narrative’s speculative events solidify the realism. I did not get as invested in the characters as I wanted to, and some of the undertones of the dilemma of individual versus community could have been clearer. However, Walker’s distanced approach to writing, as well as the slow buildup of unreleased tension make The Dreamers an experience I recommend.
Rating: The Dreamers – 6.5/10