The Dreamers: A Novel by Karen Thompson Walker

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It starts with a girl leaving a party. She feels sick, she tells her friends, like a fever, she says, like the flu. And tired, too,  as tired as she has ever felt in her life.

I don’t know what it is lately that I keep reading books about strange illness when I am going through something with my own health, but it made this book all the more peculiar and disturbing. Mei is a college student, one who ‘leaves only the lightest impression on this space’ who finds ‘comfort in not being seen.‘ When she discovers that her roommate Kara cannot wake up. Rushed to St.Mary’s, the doctors cannot figure out what is causing this mysterious sleeping sickness. Shocked, the students grieve the loss of the vibrant popular student, slowly coming around to notice Mei, aware only that she shared the room with Kara, that she is maybe Chinese, Japanese… that she isn’t to be blamed, like them, she couldn’t have known anything was amiss. Soon, the dizziness begins, what if they themselves have all been exposed to whatever Kara had? What if now, the contagion is making its way through the dorms?

It isn’t long before more students are falling asleep, dreaming more erratically, powerfully than people known to dream before. The town is terrified, somewhere in another house, a father (doomsday prepper for just such a disaster, because one will come) begins to shut his own children in, sure that there is more than is being divulged about the college infection. His twelve-year-old daughter Sara is used to this fearful ‘simmering’ this ‘something’ that is bound to happen. How many times has her father been wrong though? She and her sister Libby are maturing, are growing exasperated, embarrassed by their father’s often irrational, outlandish behavior. This time feels different though, this time it’s not just her father, it’s the town! A couple with their newborn aren’t concerned at first. Visiting professors Ben and Annie haven’t been in Santa Lorna long.  Their baby girl Grace is 17 days old, they haven’t been exposed to the ill students. Surely it doesn’t concern them, and in their case, ‘to close one’s eyes can be an act of survival’ until it isn’t.  Professor Nathaniel is a bit shamed that he can’t quite bring to mind Kara, a student of his dead now. Sorry that more are ill, surprised that the school is making news, thinking about the state of things for the young today. Catherine tries to understand the psychiatry of it, maybe it’s not physical illness, but one of the mind and she is as baffled as the medical doctors. Curious of these dreams and what they mean, psychiatry isn’t much invested in such things anymore, not in these modern times.

As a southern California town is consumed by fear, panic and losing loved ones to the depths of a strange sleep, those in charge can’t figure it out, nor save them. In fact, many fall pray to the illness themselves. Family loses each other be it through quarantine or distance. The National Guard brings to mind bitter history and the horrible things done during other epidemics incite terror amongst the citizens. For many, they find themselves alone for the first time, in a fight for their lives, fearing the unknown. Mei finally relies on another, and discovers maybe she has been asleep in life far longer than the victims.

This is a heck of a story, just the right side of strange but not overwhelmingly so. It feels like something that could happen. What distance is further, more personal than dreams and illness? Dreams that can feel like a lifetime, haunt you when you wake up, illness that no one understands, that makes you a pariah? It has happened, we have certainly seen mass panic where illness is concerned, that’s what makes it scary.  I like that it was character driven, that the story wasn’t so much about the illness but how it drew people together or apart. Illness is a bit like a slow dream, nightmare. It was a unique read for me, because the writing was beautiful and I cared about the characters but you don’t spend time with just one in particular. I hate to say one book is just like another book, so instead I will say of all the novels that blurbs claim are ‘like The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Euegnides‘ I felt the same disorientation and spacey, fuzzy emotions reading Walker’s latest offering. Again, I was coming off being sick, so it just fit my mood to perfection. It was like waking from some verwirrender Traum. Yes, read it but you’ll have to wait until the New Year. I think Karen Thompson Walker is an author to watch, I’ve had The Age of Miracles on my TBR list. Time to read it!

Publication Date: January 15, 2019

Random House Publishing

 

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Severance: A Novel by Ling Ma

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The key thing, we reminded ourselves, was never to stop, to always keep going, even when the past called us back to a time and place we still leaned toward, still sang of, in quieter moments.

Candace Chen, daughter of  Chinese immigrant parents, wasn’t there at the Beginning when everyone else was stalking Wal-Mart, googling survival, none of that. She was living on routine, one of the last to leave New York, on automatic working in her Manhattan office on a bible for teens. As it all falls apart, she is like a ghost keeping record with photographs of New York on her blog. Solitude is not made for survival. It is a Yellow Cab that becomes her ‘in’ with Bob and the group, but is it her salvation? The End, she assumed, was near and as others fell ill around her with Shen Fever, she waited to become infected herself. It didn’t happen. Surely she wasn’t much different, like a record skipping in place, doing the same thing over and over, that’s the illness. Regretting the choice she made to stay behind, even when her boyfriend encouraged her to leave New York with him, his plan to sail a yacht with his friend. The world is crumbling, it’s interesting that it takes an apocalypse for her to leave, so marred in her routine that not even love could budge her. Her hand is forced by circumstances this time. Why is she immune? None of us are, are we? Trapped in our jobs, noses in our phones, so many days often like a repeat of the one before. Wrapped up in nonsense, so much processed garbage we eat and put in our heads. Well…

The Facility is a place where they can all begin again, if they make it there. Bob has big plans, it’s vital they follow rules! It’s much like immigration, if you think about it. There is this idea of a new world born out of destruction, fear of the unknown, unsure who to trust. Hell is a shopping mall for me though, and it’s clever that she chose that location. You could put a lot of meaning into that, consumerism, a mall could be as self-sustaining, self-contained as she was while working on the teen gem bible. Her boyfriend was sick of that very world, here she is still trapped in it. Too, you can’t ‘opt out’- like she feels about Jonathan when faced with his idealism. It would seem the only way to overhaul the way we all live the whole world around is a pandemic. We are all of us so deep in this mess.

On their journey, they sweep through houses, past dead people for supplies. Memories are poison. How much worse when ‘stalking ones own homes’? It’s strange and eerie how people behave when infected. Candace revisits the past, everything that led her here, so the novel isn’t just another postapocalyptic struggle. Her love for Jonathan and her decision to stay in the life she didn’t even much like is too familiar to many of us. Why don’t we break away? Why do we cling fiercely to repetition, to the devil we know?

Bob is adamant they will do better this time, even if he has to go to great lengths to save people from themselves and keep them as one would prisoners. As if people won’t just ruin it all again. We are creatures of habit, more than we admit. The story Ling Ma shares about the members of the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day saints, their exodus, the only choice that remained for them to leave with their old world in ruins isn’t lost on me. Her own parents being immigrants too had to venture into the unknown, to America. Honestly, the novel is more literary fiction to me than sci-fi, I rather liked her flashbacks, the ‘pre-apocalyptic’ memories. The pacing might not work for readers that prefer action. The world stands still, and we are left with the destruction of our own making. Candace has her own second chance that may well have nothing to do with Bob and his visions for a new future but will she have the strength?

You can’t dive too deep into the past, nor can you live a life of meaning floating along the shallows.

Publication Date: August 14, 2018

Farrar, Straus and Giroux