“The Dreamers” begins like a horror story. A strange illness breaks out among a group of students in the college town of Santa Loma, Calif. First one and then another falls into a deep sleep, from which they cannot be woken. As the epidemic spreads, the dorm’s inhabitants and then, ultimately, the entire town, are quarantined, along with the emergency responders and medical professionals whose duty it was to treat them.
This turns out to be no thriller, however. In fact, author Karen Thompson Walker (“The Age of Miracles”) dismisses the mystery aspect in a fairly prosaic manner less than halfway through the book: “The source of the troubles, it turns out, is not madness or poison or bacteria,” she has a nameless researcher discover, but “a virus.” After this matter-of-fact disclosure, what remains is a study of a community in crisis. What happens when we are taken out of our routines — almost literally, out of time? The result is a dream-like, sleepy, and somewhat surreal tale, but one that is also often beautiful and disturbing.
Weaving together the stories of several of the residents, “The Dreamers” initially appears straightforward and chronological. The serious and studious Mei discovers the first victim, her roommate, Kara, and subsequently sheds her loner status as she helps search for other sleepers. Newcomers Ben and Annie squabble and worry over their infant daughter, each blaming the other for the choices that led them to Santa Loma. Sara and Libby, preteen sisters, work to keep themselves and their growing menagerie of rescued animals alive after their single-parent dad falls ill. Nathaniel, a biology professor at the college, contemplates the disease and its role in nature as he visits his ailing partner in nursing care. Slowly, each begins to react to the illness — and to the removal of societal constraints — in subtle and personal ways.
Days bleed into each other, and even for those who remain healthy are filled by the hunt for dwindling resources and the newly afflicted. Sara and Libby root through their attic for mementos of their long-dead mother, but what they find fails to evoke any memories. Sleep-deprived by the demands of the baby, Ben begins to lose his footing. “He cannot always tell which are the real memories and which are not,” he thinks. “Like those ice cream sandwiches. . . . Did we really do that?”
As the individual stories proceed, some of the narratives begin to include dreams. These are first presented as such, apart from waking life, but eventually the division becomes less clear. A particularly poignant vignette plays out, before the reader realizes that this fully realized episode is happening in the character’s sleep.
Several appear aware, to some extent, that waking life and dreaming are becoming confused, and discussions about consciousness run throughout the book. “Maybe none of this is real,” one student points out. “[T]heoretically, if we were dreaming right now, we would have no way of knowing that.”
Others dismiss such thoughts. “I don’t think any of us are in the mood for that kind of dorm-room [speculation] tonight,” the student is told. As characters wander through these intertwined narratives — the protagonist of one story becoming a bit player in another — the reader seems to get clues as to what is real and what is not.
However, when a sleeper wakes with horrible visions of another catastrophe, one that has not yet happened, the straightforward nature of the book and of time itself comes into question. Has time become unmoored from reality, as it is in dreams? Are some of those afflicted able to see the future?
Through it all, one biological clock ticks steadily. A young woman who succumbed to the illness after her first sexual experience is pregnant, the fetus developing in her unconscious body. This new life serves as a constant as the other narratives drift around her. In fact, her story — and that of her child — is one of the last told, with repercussions that extend even when the virus has run its course.
For her, as with many of the survivors, the illness’s lasting effects are emotional rather than physical. Melancholy and regret leave their mark, as they would after a particularly disturbing dream. Or maybe, these dreamers would say in this at times haunting book, it is a new awareness of waking life that has changed them.
“In one way, at least, this time is just like any other,” one character realizes. “[I]t goes.”
By Karen Thompson Walker
Random House, 304 pp., $27
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Clea Simon is a Somerville-based author, most recently of “A Spell of Murder” (Polis). She can be reached at www.cleasimon.com