The apocalypse has never looked as peaceful as it does in The Dreamers. Permeating the small SoCal town of Santa Lora is a contagious sickness, one that doesn’t induce vomiting or fever or really any pain at all — only deep, ceaseless sleep. “They sleep like children, mouths open, cheeks flushed,” writes Karen Thompson Walker (The Age of Miracles). “Breathing as rhythmic as swells on a sea.”
The first case occurs at the local college. A girl leaves a party feeling “as tired as she has ever felt in her life,” crashing like a hungover freshman would — but then unable to wake up. Her dorm floor is quarantined, classes are canceled, and the town falls into a quiet, collective panic. From there, the novel tracks a unique group — including a testy young couple raising a newborn and a gay biologist whose lover is slowly dying — any of whom could drop, dreaming, at any moment. Walker chronicles the epidemic’s spread as life mundanely goes on — as a religious student loses her virginity, as friends and family toast a new bride, as a florist makes a delivery by a lake where, when the snoring commences, “10 dozen roses drift for hours on the water before gradually washing up on the beach.” It’s like The Leftovers if the departed remained earthbound.
The Dreamers eschews typical disaster plotting; there’s no Purge-level anarchy or menace. Instead this is an exquisite work of intimacy. Walker’s sentences are smooth, emotionally arresting — of a true, ethereal beauty. Around the conscious experiences of loss, fear, and heartbreak, we’re invited into the dreamers’ worlds, and there, in the slumbery depths, this book achieves its dazzling, aching humanity. For sleep is where we await rebirth, where we’re one with our minds; it’s what we all ease into after nights of passion, or comfort, or loneliness. “This is how the sickness travels best,” writes Walker. “Through all the same channels as do fondness and friendship and love.” A-
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