Dreams or Nightmares? Karen Thompson Walker & Friedrich Gorenstein

Some books are popular, others unknown.  Karen Thompson Walker’s new science fiction novel, The Dreamers,  has received almost too much attention, while Soviet writer Friedrich Gorenstein’s grim  Redemption has received too little.

One is a dream, the other a nightmare.

I looked forward to The Dreamers because I loved Walker’s graceful first novel, The Age of Miracles, set in California in a  near future where the rotation of the earth has slowed. Time is unpredictable:  the 24-hour day is a thing of the past.  The adult narrator, Julia, tells the story of the first year of the catastrophe from the perspective of her 11-year-old self.

Walker’s second novel, The Dreamers, also has an eerie, hypnotic mood. It is reminiscent of Saramago’s Blindness:  when a sleeping sickness breaks out among a group of college freshmen, the town is quarantined. The infected patients have unusual REM activity and frighteningly realistic dreams.  After the hospital fills up, new patients  are housed in  camps and libraries.  People are afraid of being rounded up.

Although The Dreamers is billed as an adult novel, it has the simplicity of a Y.A. book.  Most of the characters are children and teenagers. Two college students escape quarantine and roam from deserted house to deserted house before deciding to help with the sick at the camp;  a couple worry about their baby but are prevented from leaving town (along with thousands of others) by the military; and a survivalist father falls ill, leaving his two girls to fend for themselves with his basement bunker of supplies.

The Dreamers is a cozy catastrophe, a distant, less dramatic descendant of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids and Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor.   One eerie scene is worthy of the masters:  a student awakens after months to find she has given birth to a baby girl.  She is inundated with grief, because she had dreamed a whole life in which she had raised a son and was finally old.  How can she live without her son?

The ending is anticlimactic, though.

It is a  good weekend read.  An escape from winter!


Nabokov repudiated Soviet literature. I often agree.  Much of it is badly-written,  as well as painful.  The purges, the violence, the informers, starvation, lying, censorship etc., etc.,  can topple the sturdiest narrative.

Columbia University Press recently published the first English translation of Friedrich Gorenstein’s Redemption, which was written in 1967. Gorenstein, a Soviet Jewish author, left the Soviet Union and moved to  Berlin to publish his work.

This novel is historically important, but, alas, was not my kind of thing.

I found the writing very rough, and have no idea whether it’s Gorenstein or  the translator Andrew Bromfield.  Sometimes it is Bromfield.  I tired of awkward sentences like the following:  “For the first time in many months, Sashenka fell asleep calmly on that night, beside Oksanka, who was sleeping, pink from her bath; and for the first time, Sashenka dreamed calmly and clearly of her beloved.”

The book centers on Sashenka, a stupid, vicious 16-year-old girl who, after quarreling with her mother, who works as a dishwasher, reports her to the authorities for stealing leftover food from work.  Her mother goes to prison. Sashenka doesn’t give her mother a thought.  And even after seeing atrocities, after working with a team of people who dig up bodies from mass graves to be carted away to a different site, she cares only about her new boyfriend. Eventually she has a baby, but she doesn’t change:  near the end of the book she threatens to report a professor and his  wife as enemies of the state.

What a terrifying, dangerous time!

I disliked this book from start to finish.  Why did I finish it?