Controller of Dreams is a subversive adventure story. Its author is hiding behind a pseudonym, but the hand of a master can be detected here—Marek Nocny’s attractively written book, aimed primarily at teenage readers, is a story about love and violence. It draws on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, retold in the age of cyberculture: something like a Polish Matrix with anti-globalization elements. The hero, a physics student who goes by the name of Rastaman—a rebel but also a fantasist, a superman and a weakling—descends into Hades in search of Agnieszka, his Eurydice—except that the Hades of today is a modern shopping mall, temple of contemporary culture, place of temptation and the enactment of symbolic violence. It is here that the “True Life” corporation has secretly installed itself. The corporation’s goal is to control human minds by selling us what are supposedly our own dreams. It operates ruthlessly. Our hero wages a life-and-death struggle with its executives. Controller of Dreams is also a literary game. There are references to Calderón de la Barca and his Life is a Dream: Marek Nocny’s heroes experiment with dreams, but in fact they are manipulated by the corporation; nevertheless, they manage to find ways to win back their freedom. For in this novel dreams are also an ocean of the unconscious that, like the sea in Lem’s Solaris, evokes thoughts and desires.
Controller of Dreams is more than just an enjoyable read. It can be read in different sequences and is an excellent example of postmodern literature. Reality and fiction turn out to be indistinguishable; we are constantly dealing with the spinning identities of the main character. Experiments with dreams, chases, escapes, crime stories, literary allusions, the ups and downs of the hero’s love life, humor, deeper meanings—all this makes Controller of Dreams a book that is not just entertaining but deeply engaging.
- Marek Zaleski
Marek Nocny was born in the second half of the 20th century. He works as a writer, though he writes about something else and is well-known under a different name. He resides permanently in Poland. He has a dog.
“I know some things that you can’t get for money. They’re called faith, hope, and love.”
“I’m short in all three colors,” Rastaman interrupted sourly.
“It’s a pretty lousy deal, huh? Unless you were playing bridge. Or something else that you’ve probably never heard of. Shall I continue?”
“You haven’t chosen your cards. You were dealt them and you can’t change them. So look carefully at them and think what game they might be good for.”
“Have you been looking at my cards?”
The Kid shrugged.
“Strong cards are good, but only in the real. In the dream world you can win something even with weak ones. There you might even become a big fish. Give it a try—it’s worth it.”
A big fish in the dream world. . .
“I might actually be interested,” laughed Rastaman. “It’s just that for a long time now I’ve not had any dreams.”
Just how long, he didn’t remember. Weeks. To tell the truth, he would really have liked to dream about Agnieszka once in a while. Now, when he had no expectations, a nice dream would been quite sufficient. A nice dream with the overpowering illusion that she was there. Best of all every night. Instead of meetings in the real. Which was impossible.
“You’ve not had any dreams? That never happens in nature. You have several dreams every night, maybe more. You should say rather that you’ve lost touch with your dreams. But you can get it back again. It’s just a matter of the right technique.” Rastaman was so interested he leaned all the way forward and the button of his corduroy shirt caught on the edge of the table.
“A matter of technique. . .Can you say more? Do you use a special device?”
Now the Kid smiled from ear to ear, and something flashed in his mouth. His teeth were wired up in braces. They must have been paid for by Bomber, who would send money for larger expenses. English lessons, remodeling the bathroom, a winter overcoat for the old man. Since he left he’d become a dependable son and brother. A role model for the Kid, whether either of them liked it or not.
“There’s no need for any special equipment. Standard issue is all you need. You’ve gotten into dreams without consciousness. In the morning you wake up in a daze and don’t remember anything. It’s as if you were partying while you were blacked out.”
“That’s the best kind of partying.”
“We’re talking about a better way of dreaming.”
How do you like that: a better way of dreaming. Is that ambitious or what?
“This is getting more and more interesting,” said Rastaman with a gesture of encouragement—he wound an invisible thread round his hand.
The Kid watched the hand with a blank look, because he didn’t know if Rastaman was being serious or the opposite.
“In dreams you can have what you’re missing in life,” he said eventually in a slightly offended tone, and it looked as if he would now wait to be begged. He took a sip from his glass, looked around and waved to someone. Some guys on skateboards. They waved back. Then the girls with them also waved. And then they were gone, hidden behind other passers-by. The Kid was lost in thought for a moment. But the subject of dreams, his favorite, brought him back.
“Don’t think it’ll be easy. You need to develop a certain amount of skill. To know how to do things. To begin with, the simplest stuff. First of all, learn how to use reality checks. Because how can you tell that for example you’re not dreaming right now? How can you be sure you’re really in the mall and not at home in bed?”
“You’re joking,” said Rastaman unsurely. At this point it was hard to figure out who was playing here and at whose cost. The mall was buzzing with life. Life. Not dreams. There was nothing to think about.
The Kid looked up over his glass.
“Have you never had a dream that fooled you totally? In dreams people are gullible. In the real they don’t pay attention. Most of them can’t tell the one from the other. They dream when they’re awake, and when they’re asleep it’s the opposite, they become strangely concrete. If I were you I wouldn’t be so certain of anything. Those two poodles in the mall? The easygoing security guards? Have you seen anyone here with a baby in a stroller? You should count your fingers instead. Seriously, count them.”
Rastaman was surprised, but he counted his fingers. The nails were chewed. His gaze rested for a moment on the palm of his hand. There, a few hours before he had written something with a pen, because he’d not been able to find a slip of paper in his pockets. Sweet Dreams. They were sleeping pills. The name was as stupid as the girl who’d given them to him. Someone he knew from grade school. Her nickname was Daisy; he’d met her by chance in the subway. It was a mild over-the-counter medication that always worked. She had had trouble sleeping too, but now she took Sweet Dreams. . . And then that lingering, expressive gaze from beneath long eyelashes—it was a scene straight from a TV commercial. He remembered Daisy from long ago, sitting in the front row. Even then she looked like someone from an advertisement. In class she’d always be waving her hand in the air, always knowing everything. In life as well. She had a ready remedy for every problem. Good advice for everyone, always with a note of superiority. Bomber would have remembered her. But the Kid probably didn’t know her.
“What did you expect? Five fingers.”
“That’s exactly the point,” said the Kid, surreptitiously counting his own. “You should know that in dreams it doesn’t usually come out. Your fingers are kind of hazy, unclear. Especially the middle ones. If you keep counting, you’ll end up with six or seven. Then you know where you stand. It’s a ticklish moment, it’s easy to wake up at that moment. You need to know special tricks to make sure your dream stays on track.
“If you manage, you’re in control of the situation. You’ve got a joker up your sleeve; you can trump aces with plain cards. You take everything. Let’s say some guys are trying to mug you at a deserted tram stop—hand over your wallet and cell phone, they say. No problem—you reach into your pocket and pull out a loaded gun, and the guys are so scared they crap their pants. Or you think of something awesome that you could never afford in all your life. Try and pay for it with your credit card. It may work. You might be successful, because in dreams bank accounts are subject to different laws. Or you really want to meet a particular person. Open the first door you see—there they are. In certain circumstances you can even walk through walls, though that’s not easy, it’s more for advanced players. And one more thing. In dreams your time doesn’t move forward, it goes in various directions—sideways, even backwards. You live and live as much as you want, outside of time. Sometimes you can manage to spend several weeks in the space of a quarter of an hour.”
Several weeks, not bad. Except what for? Rastaman could barely make it from morning to evening.
“What about sex?” he asked with feigned indifference.
“Once you’ve gained a certain amount of skill, you can have any kind of sex you like, with whoever you like,” declared the Kid. From the brief glimmer in his eye it was obvious he was still a stranger to any other kind.
“All right. So you can have anything you want, but not for real,” Rastaman summed up. “I’m not sure that’s enough for me. Pleasures like that are too flimsy. They fall apart by themselves.”
“Nothing exists for real,” said the Kid with a laugh. “You need to change your way of thinking. For real, pretend—what’s the difference? That I wouldn’t worry about.”
Translated by Bill Johnston