"It was hard — terrible, sometimes — but that's life, real life! Know what I'm saying?"
There's something both handy and unfortunate about a classic novel brought into a new market after a major motion picture with the same general concept. "It's like Inception" is the quickest, cleanest way to describe the heist sensibility and ectoplasm dives in The Deep Sea Diver's Syndrome without getting into the vaguely hallucinatory specifics. But that description barely scratches the surface of Serge Brussolo's 1992 novel, which makes an art out of its nightmares.
In Brussolo's slightly fractured future, David is a medium — someone whose lucid dreams can produce an amorphous ectoplasm that soothes and even heals its beholders. It's changed the art world: What use is a painting when an ectoplasm can banish your wrinkles and your nightmares? The toniest neighborhoods burst into being near public art installations; museums become mausoleums. It's enough like art that the work of dreaming ruins the dreamers; it's enough pap for the masses that every million-dollar-auction winner has a dime novel inspiration behind it. David is a small-timer whose productions are more suited to middle-class mantles than bold public statements. Those are the work of Soler Mahus, a used-up medium whose mind is reduced to the racist Great White Hunter ramblings of his self-aggrandizing subconscious; a portrait of the artist as a young megalomaniac.
There is, technically, a plot — one last heist in the dream world, the big score that will let David rest — but Brussolo (translated from the French by Edward Gauvin) is happy to linger under a cloud of dread, picking apart the wretched, self-pitying threads of David's restless life in a world in which his littleness is horrifyingly measurable. Syndrome is also a novel of ideas that's much less concerned with the ideas than it is the minute ways things stay with us; unimportant details fester and eat their own tails.
Brussolo seamlessly maintains both that air of dread and a quality of the lugubrious unreal that's only fitting in a novel that's so ambivalent about reality: Dialogue swings from pulp fiction to soliloquy, and dissatisfaction leaves a taste in the mouth until David can't eat. Even awake, he's just as likely to suffer from hallucinations that rise up like bilge water without warning; the lives of those who don't dream have all the blitheness of a dream that's just about to turn into a nightmare.
That sense of omnipresent decomposition — which affects David as much as it does the museums and incinerators and bakeries of the world — can lead to some beats that are no less sour for being intentional. Though it's no surprise that a man as self-obsessed as David objectifies those around him until they could walk out of a painting in two dimensions, the way he flattens the women in his life — his mother, his lover, his caretaker, his muse — until he can find some reason to quietly despise them becomes almost familiar. That doesn't mean it gets easier to swallow.
But Brussolo is careful to keep us from falling so deeply into David that we ever truly sympathize; we understand how he got set so adrift, while we furtively look for the shore to save ourselves. Though questions of art, society, reality, and identity are everywhere, a world as unstable as that in The Deep Sea Diver's Syndrome keeps us from reaching for any easy answers; visually rich and deliciously unsettling, it's a science-fiction fever dream that will leave you in no hurry to wake up.