Today’s post is in vein of something that I don’t do often (but wish I did more): a book analysis! Typically, I review books for The Quiet Pond but my analyses in book reviews are generally superficial and more orientated towards my thoughts about a book. However, I had the chance to read Dealing in Dreams by Lilliam Rivera and finished it last week.
What stuck out to me while reading Dealing in Dreams was that the themes were fantastic – and really resonated with me. When I started book reviewing in 2015, my main motivation for book reviewing was to engage with books on a sociologically and critical level and write analyses about what I’ve read. Though my motivations for book reviewing have now changed – I write book reviews because I want to promote inclusive literature – there are times where I read a book that resonates with me and engages with me on a critical and sociological level. The last time I did a book analysis, it was for Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan – a book that I found very engaging, layered, and made me want to analyse it for fun. (Whether it’s a good analysis is beside the question, but I did have fun doing it!)
Dealing in Dreams unexpectedly engaged me – I was prepared for a fun and gritty dystopian book about Latinx girls surviving a desolate landscape. I did forget, though, that dystopia often have social discourse – and there was certainly discourse in Dealing in Dreams. Moreover, I feel pretty compelled to write about it, because Dealing in Dreams captures the themes that I loved learning about when I was in studying Sociology way back when. Nonetheless, I’m pretty excited to write this analysis today.
Will it be good? Will it be accurate? I have no idea, but I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. This is not a book review, and I don’t claim to know what Rivera was aiming for when she wrote Dealing in Dreams, but what I talk about are the things that stuck out to me when reading this book. So here it is: my not-a-review book analysis of Dealing in Dreams.
This analysis contains minor spoilers and has a content warning for drug use.
Mega City: A Metaphor for Classism
Dealing in Dreams takes place in a wasteland dystopian city where, for lack of a better term, the ‘working class’ or the ‘toilers’ produce food pellets (has no taste but provides the nutrients and energy required for an adult human) and sueños (a highly addictive drug that causes the user to hallucinate and have euphoric dreams). On the other end of the spectrum, you have the opulent ‘upper class’ who live in the Towers, including its seemingly benevolent matriarch, Déesse. Nalah, better known as Chief Rocka, seems to occupy a space in the middle (though I’ll get to why she doesn’t quite sit in the ‘middle’ even though she thinks she does later); she is the leader of a Las Mal Criadas (LMC), a teen girl-gang that patrol the streets of Mega City and keeps people in check with violence.
I went into this book thinking it was about girl gangs and a mystery that will change the way Nalah will see the world forever. To some degree, that is true. But I also discovered, to my delight, that it wasn’t just about that – it was so much more.
What struck me while reading Dealing in Dreams was that it was a fantastic, albeit exaggerated for thematic purposes, portrayal of classism under capitalism. Sure, capitalism can be a pretty loaded term that means a variety of things. I mean, no doubt: capitalism is a complex and layered socio-economic structure that involves exploitation of the working class for their labour, a powerful few that exerts control, private ownership of the means of production – all that stuff. Though Dealing in Dreams doesn’t offer much exposition of how the world came to be (and I firmly believe that it doesn’t need to to be a good dystopian novel), Mega City is a metaphor of late capitalism left unchecked.
Most evidently, there is an immense and clear disparity between the toilers and those who live in the Towers. Classism is a distinct theme in Dealing in Dreams and a significant focus of the book. The toilers live in desolate and terrible conditions, sleeping underground and, presumably, overpopulated homes. They are heavily exploited, with most toilers working in the factories to produce sueños. There’s also this cruel irony that currency in Mega City is sueños tabs rather than ‘old-world money’, and that the toilers produce the very thing that is integral to their oppression. It’s depressing. In contrast, those who live in the Towers live in a state of opulence – where they party all day and night, are promised luxury and their own private room, and do not have to labour like the toilers do.
There are a lot of metaphors that come into play when thinking about the disparity between rich and poor – like how the poor and toilers live under and on the ground versus while the rich and those who live in the Towers live in a skyscraper. (I’m also thinking about Parasite and how the Kim family live in banjiha, the semi-basement apartment below the ground, while the Park family live above the ground and on the hills.) But, to say that Mega City is purely a fictional dystopian landscape would be untrue – such disparities exist, and have existed for a long time. Glimmering apartments built next to slums and gentrification happen today. (The dystopian landscape reminded me a lot of Want by Cindy Pon, which has a futuristic Taipei in the book that is rife with pollution and the stark divide between you [‘to have’, the rich] and mei [‘to not have’, the poor]).
Furthermore, the toilers in Dealing in Dreams are not only routinely exploited for their labour but also routinely dehumanised. Something I quite enjoyed about the book was how the story is told from the eyes of Nalah. Specifically, we come to learn and understand the world of Mega City through her narrative and how she perceives the events, things, and people around her. The dehumanisation of the toilers is prevalent across the story and in Nalah’s narrative; to her, toilers are faceless things, nothing more than cogs in the machine that are integral to Mega City’s functioning. To Nalah, they are scarcely human and she understands them as what they do – produce sueños and food – and people to be corralled and controlled, rather than human beings with autonomy. The power structures within Mega City are revealed in the ways that the toilers are treated, oppressed, and the insidious ways in which violence is perpetuated against them.
Sueños as a mechanism of control
Another theme integral to the worldbuilding in Dealing in Dreams is control. In Dealing in Dreams, no one is allowed aboveground at night (and if you are, the girl gangs or ‘crews’ who function as agents of control and police the streets will find you) and a significant population of toilers consume sueños to survive the monotony of their labour. Toilers live in a perpetual and unending state of strict control, where their movements and labour are regulated and controlled. Dealing in Dreams takes it to the next level though, and examines how bodies are not regulated but how drugs can be insidiously used as mechanism of control; to be fed sueños, the drug that gives its user euphoric dreams, to keep the toilers sedated and powerless. This is particularly apparent even in the first chapter; when Nalah and her crew find a woman on the streets, they are taken away to be given sueños, to be sedated.
– I just had a thought while writing this. I think it’s also interesting and important that sueños is, essentially, described as a ‘happy pill’ that is widely accessible and distributed among the toilers. Years ago when I did a Sociology paper examining emotions and their function from a sociological perspective, we discussed emotions and their place in, well, society. To give you an example, anger is often associated to be a negative and destructive emotion, but it can also be an emotion that motivates protest. Anger can be seen as a response to when someone takes away something important to us – without the anger that we feel when injustice occurs, would there be protest and resistance?
In that vein, I think it is meaningful (purposeful?) that sueños is a euphoric drug and I think the fact that it induces happiness is important here. While happiness is good, too much happiness isn’t good either. We could get very philosophical about this – let’s not go there – but happiness can be associated complacency and ignorance to injustice. Moreover, happiness can sometimes be incongruent with truth. What could possibly be wrong with your life, if you are happy? When happiness is manufactured and only a pill away, society, as seen in Dealing in Dreams, is easier to control. To borrow the quote from Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, “Happiness is the most insidious prison of all.”
While reading Dealing In Dreams, I thought that the inclusion of the drug in the story could underpin the American War on Drugs and the pervasive and destructive effect this had on Latin America. What it also reminded me of was the drug ‘soma’ in Brave New World – in Brave New World, society is kept peaceful and its people complacent by constant consumption of soma. If they feel sad or uncomfortable or feel cognitive dissonance, they take the pill. What, I think, Dealing in Dreams (and Brave New World) is getting at is that wide access and conditioned consumption of drugs like sueños become effective mechanisms of control. It keeps the toilers ‘happy’ and in a perpetual state of euphoria, giving them just enough will to labour but not enough to see the injustices apparent in Mega City, not enough to question, resist, and act.
Nalah’s Character Arc is An Analogy for the American Dream (and Why It’s a Lie but is Integral to Her Survival)
Nalah was a fantastic protagonist. Not particularly because of her personality traits, but her agency as the leader of a girl gang and her past – and consequently who she came to be – offer such fantastic windows into the nuance of the worldbuilding and the themes of the story.
What came to mind when reading Dealing in Dreams was how Nalah’s growth as a character and her journey through the events that take place in Dealing in Dreams was an allegory of the American Dream – and why it is such a powerful lie. Specifically, a significant motivation for Nalah across the story is to rise high enough, serve well enough, and do enough to be given entry to the Towers. I talked a little bit about the Towers and how they represent the class divide between rich and poor, but the Towers could also represent the ‘prize’ for what the American Dream promises – that if you work hard enough, no matter who you are and where you came from, you can achieve success.
Nalah firmly believes this concept of ‘upward mobility’ in Mega City to be true. It is why she starts a girl gang, has no shortage of ruthlessness for carrying out Déesse (Mega City’s leader) will, and would even go so far as to betray her own gang member for this dream (though, the decision does eat away at her). Although her parents were toilers and lived on the ground like every other poor person in Mega City, getting into the Towers is her endgame goal, a dream she believes to be possible and almost promised to her. In Nalah’s eyes, there is no concept of privilege (she believes that privileges are earned and can be won if she works, fights, and sacrifices enough) and she firmly believes that if she gives her whole being to this dream of entering the Towers, then that dream will be guaranteed to her. She has worked so hard, she thinks, she has given so much. Why wouldn’t Déesse grant her entry to the Towers?
What Nalah is blind to, but is later revealed towards the end of the book is this promise of ‘earning your place in the Towers’/the American Dream cultivates a culture of permitting exploitation, presented as ‘sacrificing oneself for the dream’ (I mean, I think about how interns in the US aren’t paid but the exploitation of interns is framed as needing to ‘make enough sacrifices to get to where you want to be’). For Nalah, she would do anything for her dream of being given entry to the Towers at any cost – even if it means keeping toilers ‘in check’ by giving them sueños, even if it means betraying one of her own, even if it means being Déesse’s soldier and enacting violence on others.
Reading Dealing in Dreams, I also thought about Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby Jr., an intentionally horrendous book (one I’ll never read again) about four characters who fall into drug addiction in pursuit of the American Dream. A theme that emerges while reading Requiem for a Dream is that upward mobility is afforded to a privileged few, while the four characters in the working class get involved in drugs to ‘earn money’ until they ‘earn enough so they can stop and live their dreams’. Money and their dreams become their god in Requiem for a Dream, and the ending is horrific and scarring. In much the same way, Nalah sacrifices her personhood, her past, and her everything, and offers the entirety of her being to this dream, to prove that she is ‘loyal’ to Déesse and her institution, so that, one day, she can be given entry into the Towers. Nothing matters more to her than her dream – it’s her salvation, the heaven that will strip her of all the suffering she has endured in Mega City.
Despite all of this, despite Nalah’s complicity in oppressing others – you can’t really blame her either. Violence has governed Nalah’s whole life; she sees the world with bloody fists raised and her power as a fighter has been honed in a way. Moreover, she’s been told and shown that violence is her value. For Nalah, complicity in a violent institution is her path to a ‘better life’. More importantly, Nalah firmly believes that violence is her way of survival – where more power comes from being in a gang, inflicting violence on others, and also ensures her survival and her only chance of escaping it all.
Minor spoilers to follow, until the end of this passage.
Towards the end of the book, when Nalah is confronted with a different way of life, she resists and fights against it like a cornered animal. Seeing people live in ways that aren’t violent, in ways that contradict her worldview, fills with her such overwhelming feelings of cognitive dissonance that she refuses to believe that it’s true and genuine. She struggles against it psychologically and emotionally, saying that it is all a lie and that this other way of life is riddled with malevolent ulterior motives. (Quick interjection: it’s that cognitive dissonance that insulates and protects oppressive systems from changing; when people are told that ‘that’s the way it is’ and therefore believe that in order to survive such a violent system, they fight even harder against the idea that things can change. See: just-world hypothesis.)
What Dealing in Dreams demonstrates is that, for Nalah, believing in her dream of living in the Towers is intertwined with her survival in a violent and desolate world. She believes in this dream so desperately like her life depends on it – because it does. Humans don’t like living in a world that doesn’t feel just and fair; it’s uncomfortable, it’s painful, and it makes living more difficult. Cognitive biases can sometimes function as mechanisms for survival. Nalah justifies everything she does desperately – even though she knows, deep down, that it is wrong – because having to grapple that everything she has done is for nothing, will amount to nothing, has never served herself, would destroy her. In ways, Nalah does go through this process; she is destroyed, but ultimately in a way that liberates her. Though the ending is quite open-ended and doesn’t reveal much of her fate, the ‘release’ of this book is that she finds freedom from the prison of her own making and thinking.
Dealing in Dreams has a wealth of fascinating themes, most of which are socio-politically relevant today. I really enjoyed how Rivera’s perspective came to life through Nalah’s narrative, and I also enjoyed this tangible anger and rage that ripples across the story. There were several themes that I picked up in the book but, to be honest, I ran out of energy to write more. To touch on them briefly though, Dealing in Dreams also explores how the control in Mega City also maintains rigid ideas of gender (and how this intertwines with its overarching theme of control and oppressive systems), how the oppressed can become the oppressor, and how violence and trauma can beget more violence and trauma.
I don’t know if my analysis above makes much sense. If anything, though, writing this (which I had a lot of fun doing!) has made me miss reading sociological texts. Maybe it’s time to revisit some old textbooks.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: A teen, leader of a girl-gang that patrols the streets of Mega City, ventures out to search for a mysterious gang – only for the journey to change her world forever.
Perfect for: readers who like to read dystopian stories; readers who are looking for a Latinx-influenced read.
Think twice if: you’re not in the mood for something violent and desolate.
Genre: young adult dystopian
Trigger/content warning: physical violence, familial abandonment, murder, blood mentions, child abuse, trauma