DREAM SCIENCE. By Thomas Palmer, New York: Ticknor & Fields, 308 pp., $19.95 `DREAM SCIENCE,'' Thomas Palmer's second novel, begins with the classic mystery gambit of a body in a locked room. In this case, however, it's not a corpse, but the fully sentient body of a mutual-funds analyst, Rocker Poole, who unaccountably finds himself in a bare-walled office - the size of a small conference room - fitted out with office furniture, a bathroom, and a bed. How he got here he cannot remember. A man named Mac seems to be responsible for keeping an eye on him. Mac is able to leave the room. Rocker, try though he may, can find no way out of it.
Rocker remembers his former life in southern Connecticut, his wife, Carmen, and their infant daughter, Cinda. This was what he formerly believed to be the ``real world.'' Yet, if he had now been cut off from the world he once took for granted and made to wonder about the reality of his former life, he feels his current surroundings to be even less real. The unseen persons or presences who have been observing Rocker in his new surroundings consider his to be ``the worse case of reality failure'' they've come across. Rocker himself shares that feeling:
``He was like a balloon that had slipped through a child's grasp - the world where he had spent his first three decades, the world he shared with millions, had floated away when he wasn't looking. It wasn't enough, he now knew, to live in that world - you had to embrace it, you had to hold it close, or you would lose it.'' (6)
Whether Rocker is in his strange predicament because of his failure to embrace his real life or whether the true story is that he cannot drift off into oblivion because he is too strongly attached to memories of that life remains a moot point. This labyrinthine novel follows Rocker's ghostly adventures as he learns to travel back and forth across the mysterious ``lines'' that separate one so-called ``reality'' from another. Although he does get to return to his ``real life'' with Carmen and Cinda in Connecticut, his sense of its reality is undermined, even as he feels he cherishes it all the more for its fragility.
Having seen around the corners of a reality he previously took to be conextensive with the universe, Rocker now believes that ``reality is not uniform, but scattered in fragments'' which ``resemble dreams but are real,'' the so-called real world being simply the largest and most inclusive of the fragments. (74) Throughout the remainder of this remarkable, mildly mesmerizing novel, Rocker slips in and out of various coexisting but mutually exclusive ``fragments'' of reality. Amid his slippages, he tries to explain the situation to his wife, who eventually comes to believe him. So too does Dr. Waxman, an independent-minded psychiatrist who recognizes the difference between madness and experience of the more than rational.
To call this book ``labyrinthine'' overstates the complicatedness of its plot, but understates the complexity of its conceptual field. There is no tangled conspiracy for the reader to unravel, but there is a constantly shifting relationship between mind and matter, imagination and reality, that makes reading this novel the literary equivalent of staring at one of those three-dimensional trick drawings where background and foreground, inside and outside, seem to keep changing places.
In some ways, it is an impressive book; in some ways, a disappointing one. The author unfolds this strange tale with a minimum of hokum. But, having clued us in on the fragmentary structure of reality fairly early on, he seems at a loss as to where to go from there. The later episodes, although superficially dramatic, do not add very much to what we already know about the underlying themes. What keeps the reader going is a sense that something is about to be revealed.
That's not quite what happens, but the many insights that keep glimmering along the way make this an oddly convincing novel. It's not that readers are likely to find themselves believing in Rocker and his strange travels; but rather that they will feel convinced that this story has a meaning - and one that matters - if only they could figure out what it is.