Book Review: Dealing in Dreams by Lilliam Rivera

by Daniela Z. Montes

In a time filled with terms like “fake news,” when it can be hard to tell what’s true, Liliam Rivera’s Dealing in Dreams reminds us to be aware of the rhetoric that shapes our society and to be mindful of its effect on us.

The novel is less about a dystopian government oppressing people than it is about the citizens realizing that they are being oppressed. The reader goes through this journey with Nalah, otherwise known as Chief Rocka, the leader of one of the baddest gangs in Mega City, Las Mal Criadas.

Throughout the novel, Rivera’s diction, syntax, and use of Spanish delve the reader deeper into this Latinx-run world. Early in the novel, Nalah’s second in command, Truck, says: “Remember the time Manos threw a malasuerte into [the training camp] dorms. It was raining, and them young girls ran out screaming when the malasuerte blew up.” The use of Spanish, “incorrect” English syntax, slang, and advanced vocabulary in the novel adds a layer of representation that will make some readers feel at home. The Spanish not only helps establish the world, but every once in a while it, adds comedy. For example, when the LMC comes across another gang, Las Muñeca’s Locas, whose members dress like baby dolls, Nalah thinks to herself that the crying babies need a “big pao pao.”

The book’s first-person point of view brings the reader into Nalah’s mind, allowing Rivera to show Nalah’s unyielding admiration and loyalty to Déesee, the leader of Mega City. Nalah adores this woman so much that she has tattooed freckles on her face to look more like her. When Déesee asks Nalah to gather intel on a gang that threatens the way Mega City lives, Nalah immediately says yes. The prize is the fulfillment of Nalah’s dream to live with Déesee in the luxurious Mega Towers.

Unlike other dystopian heroines, Nalah does not see the suffering around her; in fact, she does not acknowledge her own suffering. She assures herself that everything she does is for the good of herself and her girls. Her unquestioning belief in the system is in character: Nalah heads one of the top gangs in the city, so it makes sense that her privilege blinds her. She revels in the way society is run and she loves that women are in charge. Early on she thinks: “the male gaze is dead.” Rivera drives this point home when the girls go to Luna Club, a “boydega” or nightclub, where girls can get a hot bath and be entertained by papi chulos who fulfill their fantasies.

With the exception of the papis, the other men in the city have tattooed brands on their arms to show which gang they are allied with. Some of these brands are done willfully, but others are placed on men who are caught out after curfew and do not have a brand on their arm. Men must cross the street or keep their eyes averted when they see a woman. Anyone who is not in a gang works in sueño factories with the exception of Déesee’s chosen few, those who live with her in Mega Towers. Sueño tablets (dream tablets) are used in the novel as currency and they are highly addictive. They dissolve on the tongue, giving the user  beautiful dreams. The markers for sueño addiction are grey skin and blue lips and if the addiction goes untreated the user wastes away to nothing.

Mega City is not only oppressive of men, but also to members of the LGBTQ+ community. During their journey, Nalah and her crew encounter a gay couple. It is during this exchange that Nalah begins to understand her privilege:

“Why did you leave Mega?”
My tone is full of anger. Why do these two get to share a home while I kill myself to get in the Towers?
He is scared. He should be.
“I didn’t want to be a papi,” he says. “I also didn’t want to hide how I felt for him”
“Déesee doesn’t care who you love. Only that you put in the work.”
He pauses. He is nervous I will hurt them. I can. His partner enters the room with a bag of fruit.
“This might be true for you, for women,” he says. “Not for us.”

Nalah is jealous that these men have their own house, their love, everything they can dream of outside of the city. She wants luxury and comfort, but she believes the only way to reach her dream is through violence. More than anything, Nalah struggles with the idea that happiness can be found outside the city – away from Déesee. Her revelations continue to the end of the novel: “Since I left Los Bohios, situations that never crossed my mind are being shown to me in a different light. It is unbearable. I prefer ignorance.” Nalah is forced to face her privilege over and over, forced to see the rhetoric that has kept her down when she thought it was elevating her. It’s hard for her to face these revelations because she has been blinded by her dream her entire life. She thinks she is the alpha, when in fact she is nothing but a pawn.

Dreams play a big role in Dealing with Dreams. On the one hand, Nalah is plagued by recurring dreams of the sister who abandoned her. On the other, she is addicted to her dream of reaching Mega Towers. She has sold this dream to her crew and it serves as their motivation throughout the novel. She has gotten them hooked on the idea the same way Déesee got Nalah hooked on the idea of the Towers. To live in the Towers is to truly be special, just like Déesee. They would have a bed, real food, and be in Déesee’s inner circle. Nalah looks down on sueño addicts, but the irony of her situation is lost on her. Just like they do anything to chase their high, she is willing to sacrifice anything to reach her dream.

Ultimately, Nalah has to dismantle the rhetoric that made her who she is and piece herself back together in her own image. It is a struggle we all face.

Daniela Z.  Montes is a current contributor to The Coachella Review. She received her Master of Fine Arts from the University of California – Riverside, Palm Desert Low-Residency Program. She was The Coachella Reviews former Social Media Manager. Daniela received her Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of California – Santa Barbara, where she received an honorable mention in the Kieth E. Vineyard Honorary Scholarship Short Story Contest.