What spell “The Age of Miracles” did manage to cast was predicated on two aspects. For one, as Irving Kristol put it, the “premonition of apocalypse springs eternal in the human breast.” Tell me a story in which the world is ending and CNN is covering it, and I will sit and listen for a while.
For another, Walker’s first novel tapped neatly into our fears about the melting of the permafrost. Global warming has a role to play in “The Dreamers,” too. There is drought in California, and the book’s fictional college sits by a lake that’s evaporating. Sunken boats and other ancient items emerge from the receding waters.
One of the sleepers, a doomsday prepper with two young daughters, wakes from his long sleep and relates this premonition: “The oceans moved a hundred miles inland. Los Angeles was swallowed.” By fire, by water: Like Kenny in “South Park,” L.A. always takes it in the end.
Walker needs to keep the plots of her novels spinning, like plates on sticks. When the action slows, you realize what a limited and sentimental novelist she too often is.
“The Dreamers” introduces us to many characters, nearly all of them exceedingly nice. There’s Ben and Annie, young academics new to town, and their baby. There’s Catherine, a specialist in psychiatric disorders.
There’s Mei, a college freshman, who is lonely until the contagion gives her life purpose: along with another student, she devotes herself to assisting others. There are Libby and Sara, the pre-teenage daughters of the doomsday prepper. To keep themselves sane, these girls take in animals that wander the streets, some still wearing leashes, while their owners slumber.
None of these characters says or does an interesting thing. Anarchic instincts and impure thoughts are kept to the barest minimum. Minds race in neutral. Reading this book’s bland dialogue is like watching players on center court use dead tennis balls.
Pillow-soft banalities amass in drifts: “Not everything that breaks can be repaired”; “He has seen it already, how a child can unite them but also divide”; “There are certain circumstances under which the changing of a diaper is a sacred act”; “The only way to tell some stories is with the oldest, most familiar words: This here, this is the breaking of a heart.”