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Dreamer

by Jack Butler

(Alfred A Knopf, 413 pages, hardcover, June 1998.)

Review by Claude Lalumière

Brilliant researcher and theorist Jody Nightwood gets generous funding from the CIA, through a dummy company, to cover scanresearch dreams and their relationship to the human psyche. She becomes a pawn in a covert conflict between two factions of the CIA, falls in love with an immortal vampire secret agent who writes trashy paperback bestsellers (about an immortal vampire spy), meets various West Coast mystics who put her in touch with her shamanic potential, has lots of dream sex with her "inner healer" Ish, gets shot nearly to death, and all ends well--except for most of the various secret agents, who get killed.

This could have been entertaining, and at times it almost is.

The first third of this book is truly dreadful. I felt like I was stuck in the middle of some formulaic 10 p.m. TV network drama, the kind filled with the sort of rich, successful, glamorous people of whom we're all supposed to be so envious. The pitiful, clichéd dialogue only confirmed this impression, although the sex and swearing revealed Dreamer's true analogue: a Hollywood film targeted at viewers of 10 p.m. network dramas.

The author couldn't quite decide which tone to use. Was he writing a comedic thriller? A postmodern narrative? A serious science-fictional exploration of the links between dream theory and the development of artificial intelligence? A New Age journey? A trashy sex novel? A good writer could have taken these disparate genres and concocted a potent brew. Alas, this book's poor dialogue, trite characters, and clumsy narration jeopardize any such ambition. In the middle section the story picks up a bit. Some of the gradually introduced secondary characters are slightly more interesting. The antics of the homosexual couple, Leonard and Toynbee, acting as spies for one of the CIA factions are somewhat amusing (they relieve the growing tedium), but these scenes are also symptomatic of the novel's lack of unified tone. The slapstick makes it hard to take any of the "drama" seriously, the "drama" makes the humour feel intrusive and inappropriate. Occasionally, out of the blue and for no narrative purpose I could discern, the author refers to "the other chapter" or addresses the reader directly. He frequently drops the use of quotation marks for dialogue, but then picks it up again a few paragraphs later--again to no discernible purpose.

Many things about this book are hard to swallow. The main character, "dream scientist" Jody Nightwood, and her business partner and best friend psychologist Toni Archuleta make for pretty unconvincing scientists. Unless of course, they were to audition for yet another Baywatch spin-off, Baywatch Science or Baywatch Dream Clinic or some such--then they'd fit right in. The plot's instigator, CIA scientist Benjamin George, is shown to have been motivated in his desire to create the ultimate artificial intelligence by the childhood trauma of being repeatedly raped and beaten by his abusive father. I found the casual, throwaway treatment of this detail quite offensive--another glaring example of this book's lack of consistent or pertinent tone.

The author strives for a kind of trendy hipness: many pop culture references; careful, diversified use of various cultural and ethnic groups. Unfortunately, it all comes off as calculated and artificial. When using pop culture references it's recommended to adequately research your subject. Once a reader catches the author in a mistake, it's hard to trust any information coming from that author, even if the reference is inconsequential to the plot. (For example, Butler asserts that Supergirl hailed from the bottle city of Kandor, and although there was indeed such a city in the Superman mythos, Supergirl was a native of Argo City, an altogether different place.)

In spite of myself, I grew curious as to how the story would come out, and the final chapters were less painful to slog through. As I've mentioned above, the novel manages to be occasionally almost entertaining and, when some of the secondary characters take a more active role near the end, almost interesting. Almost. The novel is too much a victim of the author's shallow approach and even the better scenes carry their share of frustrating moments when the trite dialogue and Hollywood characterization prove to be ubiquitously overpowering.

The protagonist's ultimate acceptance of her New Age shamanistic potential did not truly satisfy any narrative concerns. In the end, I failed to understand just what the author had been up to. The story's succession of scenes amounted to no purpose or shape. I had not been entertained, enlightened, stimulated, moved, or informed. There are many better ways to spend a day than between the pages of Dreamer; any of them are recommended, this book isn't.


Originally published, in slightly different form, in The Gazette, Saturday 31 Oct 1998.

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