Review

Detached, almost dreamy look at doomsday disease

In Karen Thompson Walker's second novel The Dreamers, she taps as her source material a mystery contagious illness that leaves doctors befuddled.
In Karen Thompson Walker's second novel The Dreamers, she taps as her source material a mystery contagious illness that leaves doctors befuddled.PHOTO: RANDOM HOUSE

FICTION

THE DREAMERS

By Karen Thompson Walker

Random House/Paperback/299 pages/$30.98/ Books Kinokuniya/ 3 stars

The Dreamers has all the ingredients of a doomsday scenario - an unseen lurking menace, the early confusion, the subsequent crippling fear and paranoia, and the stories of compassion and heroism that emerge.

In Walker's second novel, following her best-selling debut The Age Of Miracles (2012) - whose apocalyptic premise is the slowdown of Earth's rotation that wreaks havoc on the biological ecosystem - she taps as her source material a mystery contagious illness that leaves doctors befuddled.

She focuses on the early days of a disease that breaks out six weeks into a new academic year in the small fictional university town of Santa Lora in southern California.

Patient Zero is freshman Kara, who stumbles into her dorm room one night having left a party early complaining of acute fatigue.

Neither her roommate Mei Liu nor paramedics can wake her up the next day. Victims of this inexplicable sleeping sickness, dubbed the Santa Lora Virus, display unusually high levels of brain activity. There is soon a quarantine, which the army is called in to enforce.

The disease seemingly strikes at random - in one memorable scene, a woman sparks panic at the supermarket when she collapses while buying eggs.

The dreams seen by the victims are likewise random - some prophesise the future, others reminisce the past, while in others, the dreams reflect their innermost subconscious desires.

Walker's idea is intriguing, although the story was somewhat let down in its execution.

There is a band of key characters, nearly all of them bland.

Mei, a meek introvert, gets drawn to the enigmatic qualities of her schoolmate Matthew, the heir to a big pharmaceutical company, with whom she tries to help the local community.

Sara and Libby are sisters whose father is a doomsday prepper who, ironically, did not prepare them for the possibility that he may fall ill.

Ben and Annie are a couple whose marriage is hanging by the thread that is their newborn daughter.

Rebecca, a freshman, was impregnated before she caught the disease and gave birth while in deep sleep.

But the scattered attention means their stories are never quite fully developed.

There are also loose ends that never get tied up and far-fetched situations, including children who are allowed to go trick-or-treating despite the unfurling pandemic.

What is evocative, however, is the detached, almost dreamy quality to Walker's third-person narrative with which she paints the everyday. "Mei is watching her face the way she watches flight attendants during turbulence: if they keep pouring the coffee, she knows things are fine - some kinds of tumult frighten only the unaccustomed or the untrained. But this doctor's face, so tense and so tight, suggests that expertise is having the opposite effect."

And as she writes of how the virus is spread - "through the same channels as do fondness and friendship and love" - The Dreamers reads like a panoramic snapshot of what could be the end of the world.

If you like this, read: The Feed by Nick Clark Windo (Headline Publishing Group, 2018, $18.95, Books Kinokuniya). In the not-so-distant future, people are plugged into a system called The Feed, where everything is computerised and all memories, experiences and interactions are stored in a cloud. Everyone is crippled when the system crashes and, worse, becomes a conduit for a mysterious being to hack into the brains of humans and possess their bodies when they sleep.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 16, 2019, with the headline 'Detached, almost dreamy look at doomsday disease'. Print Edition | Subscribe