Lisa Goldstein's "The Dream Years" is about living in Paris in the 1920s as a man of leisure, frequenting the cafes and nightclubs of the city until your mother cuts off your allowance because she wants you to grow up and be a responsible young man and take your position in the family business. It is also about Andre Breton's iron-fisted rule of the Surrealist movement he founded in the early 1920s and how his autocratic leadership clashes with the radically egalitarian philosophy expressed in his manifesto. Most of all, it is about an eternal battle between the irrational desires and dreams that drive men and women and the forces of rationality and convention that stand between imagination and reality.
In outline, the novel centers on Richard, a layabout would-be novelist and (fictional) co-founder of the Surrealist movement living in 1920s Paris. It begins with a chance encounter between Richard and Solange, a beautiful woman who somehow transports him temporarily to a battle between police and protesters in May 1968. Solange eventually reveals that she's a student organizer of the May 1968 Paris protests that paralyzed the city and much of France. She shows Richard that the 1968 activists, following the Surrealists, reject materialist values and embrace dreams, the unconscious mind, and the pursuit of self-realization. (Popular 1968 slogan: "Be Realistic. Demand the Impossible!") The May 1968 movement, however, is under threat from things that physically attack members while demanding in a machine-like monotone that the protesters embrace work, be industrious, and live the lives their conventional parents would want them to. Calling upon the love that has developed between them, Solange implores Richard to enlist the the Surrealists in the cause of May 1968, helping the protesters repel the forces of authority, repression, and convention.
But can imagination and dreams beat guns and the bourgeois capitalist bureaucratic regimented wear-your-school-uniforms and salute-your-superior-officer machine? What do your dreams tell you? What does your gut tell you?
Reminiscent of Jack Finney's "Time and Again," and Marge Piercy's "Woman on the Edge of Time,"The Dream Years" doesn't fit clearly into any genre category. There's too little historical detail or context to make this an historical novel, too little attention to sci-fi or fantasy conventions to fit it into either of those boxes, etc. It's not a Surrealist novel, either; it may defy logic at times, but if it is a romp through Goldstein's unconscious mind, it's a very controlled, very un-Surrealist romp.
Really, it's not a romp at all. It's more of an after-class discussion with your philosophy professor and several of your peers at the on-campus cafe and eatery. And it's not an incredibly satisfying discussion, either. I don't like Goldstein's cool distance from her characters, a constant in all of her novels. I don't like the fact that Richard keeps saying that all he wants to do is have fun, and Goldstein seems to believe he is not a hypocrite, and yet he spends most of the book grouchy and frustrated and lonely. I don't like the fact that Goldstein does such a poor job -- perhaps intentionally -- of convincing us that her characters aren't fools. I don't like the ending, which I would call "unrealistic" if using that word didn't condemn me as part of the problem. Oops!
The bottom line, though, is that I whenever I think of the Surrealists or of May 1968, I will think of this book. When I think about conflicts between freedom and regimentation in capitalist societies, I will think of this book. "The Dream Years" has claimed a slice of my mind and imagination, and any book that can claim a piece of your mind deserves some recognition. Recommended.