There’s no room for subtlety in the YA fiction market, at least not in the minds of Tom DeLonge and Suzanne Young, who teamed up to write the awkwardly titled Poet Anderson …Of Nightmares. The first novel centering on Poet Anderson, Nightmares is the latest part of a transmedia storytelling effort by DeLonge (former guitarist and co-lead vocalist of Blink-182), joining an album, short film, and comic series.
Jonas Anderson is a lucid dreamer—someone who is not only consciously aware of his dreaming, but who also can control certain aspects of a shared dreamscape created by him and other lucid dreamers. The fictional world in which they exist was first introduced by DeLonge’s Angels & Airwaves band with the 2014 album The Dream Walker. Jonas—known as Poet in the dream world—debuted on screen the same day in a visually engaging but choppy animated short film titled Poet Anderson: The Dream Walker, which then got a prequel in a three-issue Poet Anderson comic arc. None of these, however, are necessary to consume before reading the first Poet Anderson prose offering.
In Nightmares, Alan (Poet’s brother, also a lucid dreamer) winds up in a coma following a car wreck. Poet becomes obsessed with finding him the dreamscape and waking him, because in the Poet Anderson universe, both words are realities that can impact one another (e.g., meeting ill fortune in the dream world can mean death in real life). So he’s convinced that finding his brother in his dreams will bring him back to consciousness in the waking world.
That, in and of itself, could have been grounds for a blunt metaphor about striving to make dreams reality and using fantasy to cope with tragedy, as the boys are already trying to navigate their troubled lives after their parents die in a plane crash. But DeLonge and Young lay it on even thicker: The people who seem to have full command of the dreamscape are called Dream Walkers; a manifestation of fears is the beastly Night Terror; the villain hell-bent on the destruction of the waking world is REM; a friend who likes tagging train cars is named Sketch; and the souls protecting good people from danger are Halos. Bad characters are described as dark and weighted like black holes by the damage that’s been done to them. Those with the brightest souls who can guide others? Poets. Nightmares’ symbolism is always on the nose.
The nomenclature could all be forgiven once the book hits its stride. While early the in-a-rut Poet Anderson can only be described as understandably mopey, confused, and not altogether endearing, the introduction of a love interest with a rich girl named Samantha helps him come around (even though that, too, is infused with a clichéd take on class-based social status). For those who have not seen, read, or heard DeLonge’s previous incarnations of the character, DeLonge and Young paint a vivid picture of the world. And the action is intense and grabbing, especially in Poet’s battles with his Night Terror. In Nightmares, there are even the markings of what could prove an engaging universe with some distinct characters and rules, despite most of its adventure influences being worn on its sleeve. One of those includes a tinge of Matrix-like world creation and control, which, when combined with the don’t-trust-anybody promises of betrayal, sets up some interesting possibilities for Nightmares.
Fortunately, Nightmares doesn’t require any prior knowledge from the reader. If anything, its predecessors feel more like rough outlines for the fleshed-out experience provided by the novel, a parallel-universe take on the character—somewhat recognizable but not codependent. Nightmares is actually the best of the bunch at telling a cohesive story that builds a world upon more than just flash.
The problem is that none of it ever pays off, at least not yet. Any stock Poet builds up with the reader he spends by dropping the unnecessary number of F-bombs one might expect from someone who grew up listening to Blink-182’s live album. (Why say “I love you” when you can say “I fucking love you so much”?) There is no worthwhile payoff to the betrayal angle, the Matrix possibilities are all but negated, and the good pacing of the book’s revelations gives way to a muddled finish that seems less interested in character development or resolution, and more concerned with leaving the door open for future books. Clearly DeLonge and Young worked to make Nightmares stand on its own, but they can’t pull it off without providing a contained arc.