Daniel Quinn, Dreamer
Chicago freelance writer Greg Donner has chase dreams. Who doesn’t? But when he meets a beautiful, vivacious, terrified woman in his dreams, he wants more chase dreams. When he meets that real woman, Ginny Winters, in real life, he finds the boundary between wake and dream blurring. And when he awakens in a sanatorium, informed that Greg Donner was a dream, he can’t tell the difference any longer.
Daniel Quinn’s first novel appeared twenty-five years ago, won critics’ hearts, awakened buzz in science fiction circles—and vanished without a second printing. In the intervening years, it developed a simmering Internet following, and original paperbacks can fetch $300 on eBay, but no mainstream publisher would reprint it. So Quinn, now a guru to environmentalist and alternative spirituality circles, has brought his debut back himself.
Long before Inception or The Matrix, Quinn questioned reality’s frequently dreamlike qualities, and the frustratingly realistic nature of dreams. Greg Donner’s dreams are so realistic that parts of them become more desirable than his waking life. When the woman he knows in his dreams becomes appears in his workaday life, he has to wonder how effect could precede cause. Then a third reality intrudes, contradicting everything that came before.
Greg Donner is an iconic everyman, a workaday dude living one step removed from his aspirations. Writing has become an assembly line drudge, romance a trifling distraction. (It bears note that, in 1988, freelancing kept writers much more geographically chained: you can’t venture far from your most important tools, your landline phone and the public library.) His decent, undistinguished life offers security, but has long since lost its luster.
Ginny Winters, very beautiful and intensely passionate, offers to close the gap between Greg’s life and his ambitions. But when the initial whirlwind cools, Ginny’s passions prove to conceal truly epic baggage. You know how, in your dreams, every situation seems urgent, every choice carries world-shattering consequences, and everything turns on you? Ginny doesn’t have to fall asleep to visit that world. The Ginny Greg loves may not even exist.
Dreamer counts as science fiction only in the broadest possible sense, a speculation on the nature of comprehensible reality and the evidence of our senses. The contrast between the banality of Greg’s life and the excitement of his dreams, and the possibility that some outside force has upended this equilibrium, makes for darkly hypothetical philosophy. And Quinn dares ask: why do we just assume we’re awake?
Quinn’s protagonists occupy a twinned world, where dramatic dreams and banal reality quickly become fungible. Reality becomes a pass-through between two universes, and excessive autonomy in one earns harsh payback in the other, a dark karma of futility. As Greg and Ginny invest everything in increasingly precarious gambles, unsure which will pay off, readers become increasingly anxious to see how many layers of dream conceal reality.
Despite the science fiction veneer, Quinn raises very real questions. Greg passes between his freewheeling, freelancing life, and his imprisonment in a sanatorium, increasingly unable to tell which reality is “real.” In each state, he assumes the testimony of his senses has some external basis: that is, I know this world is real because I see it with my eyes. In each reality, he assumes the other is a dream.
Two years before Quinn published this, his first novel, American psychologist Charles Tart coined the term “consensus trance” in his book Waking Up. Each of us, Tart says, shuffles through live in a dreamlike state, little better than automatons programmed by society to behave in acceptable ways. Even when we are bodily awake, a dreaming fugue dominates our thoughts; we don’t question we’re awake because, fundamentally, we’re not.
Whether Quinn read Tart’s theories I cannot say. But this book embodies the fear that we cannot distinguish reality from a well-constructed simulacrum. Greg Donner’s spiral into powerlessness, and his struggle to pierce the façade and resist the forces blurring his reality, represent the struggle all of us should undertake, though too few do. We want Greg to defeat his rampaging dreams because, fundamentally, we want to wake up too.
Quinn offers a taut thriller questioning whether we truly know reality. He blends serious philosophy with a peculiar quest epic, a variant on Campbell’s heroic journey where the whole adventure occurs in one place. He successfully keeps readers guessing which reality owns Greg and Ginny, while asking whether we own our dreams, or they own us. He suggests no easy answers, but challenges us to ask better questions of ourselves.