Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The Dream Apocalypse Facing the End of the World with Eyes Wide Shut

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The Dream Apocalypse Facing the End of the World with Eyes Wide Shut

Article excerpt

The year in literature begins with a sleeper hit about staying awake.

In the college town of Santa Lora, students are falling asleep and staying there. Some die, but most remain unconscious, with brainwave patterns that resemble deep dreaming.

Their mystery illness soon spreads to the town at large, leaving the few people unaffected to fend for themselves. This unsettling premise launches Karen Thompson Walker's "The Dreamers," a speculative meditation on consciousness that encourages readers to question reality.

The killer virus scenario is familiar genre fiction territory, but Ms. Walker ("The Age of Miracles") chooses existential dread over apocalyptic hysteria.

As the townspeople wrestle with the possibility of death by dream, they waiver between thought, action and feeling; ironically, they must first wake up from indecision before they can choose fight or flight.

Consciousness is not an easy choice, however, and Ms. Walker's characters struggle with their options.

Mei reacts to the sleeping sickness with the same guarded silence with which she navigates the casual racism of college life; forced into action by the eccentric Matthew, she rouses herself to care for the sick and comfort the frightened.

Matthew, for his part, is logical and quick to act, though his personality is a bit abrasive. He's also more comfortable spouting political theories than expressing emotions.

Their strengths seem complementary, and crises create strange alliances, but can Mei - or the reader, for that matter - trust Matthew's intentions?

Elsewhere in town a married couple bicker and worry but fail to act; by the time they decide to leave Santa Lora, it may already be too late for their infant daughter. Two sisters must rely on their survival skills when their doomsday prepper dad falls asleep.

Ms. Walker's use of third-person point of view allows her to fully explore these and other character journeys - from a sleeper's unborn child to an elderly professor's partner - with objective detachment. …

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