Temperament likely dictates your reaction to dream stories. Someone with a rich and rewarding dream life may find them fascinating and meaningful - people with silly or strange dreams may find little purchase. The dreams in fiction so rarely resemble any dreams I have personally experienced that at times the device seems little more than a second-hand trope. I haven’t remembered but a handful of dreams the last few years, since I switched medication and learned to sleep better as a result. I know the dreams are there, because that’s how the brain works, but I don’t regret their absence from my waking recollection. Always seemed quite a lot of Freudian bother!
It is my strong suspicion that Leo Quievreux may in fact share my suspicions regarding most dream stories. Quievreux’s The Immersion Project, which appears courtesy of Floating World Comics in a new translation from the French by Francois Vigneault, approaches the subject of dreams with the same morbid and melancholy demeanor that Charles Burns approaches being a teenager: maybe someone, somewhere might have had a pleasant dream, but you won’t find any such report in these pages. On the contrary the book seems a catalog of horror, ruined black & white landscapes sparsely populated by monsters and madmen, but mostly just populated by an empty numbing terror. That it is sometimes difficult to tell who is dreaming and who is awake only adds to the unshakeable paranoia.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around the invention of a machine to aid in the retrieval of human memory through dreams. In practice what that means is that the EP-1 - or, Elephant Program One - has immediate consequences far beyond merely enhancing normal memories. The briefcase-sized device enables a more active kind of lucid dreaming, and what’s more, allows multiple parties to coexist within the same dreamscape. If that sounds on paper a little like Inception, in practice the book bears almost no resemblance, focusing with precision on the world of nightmares and the fetid horrors of the human subconscious. Rather than performing any kind of merry heist, the intelligence agents who find themselves sucked into dreams struggle to maintain any connection to the waking world, often becoming lost in blasted landscapes populated by empty phantoms. The characters are intentionally little more than ciphers, an effect only made more pronounced by the story’s implication that it is just that same quality of featurelessness that enables them to survive transit through dreams.
The waking world for these secret agents does not appear significantly less nightmarish than the nightmares revealed by the EP-1. No attention whatsoever is giving to tracing the context in which these secret agents struggle - whatever the ultimate purpose or strategic significance of such a device might be, for all intents and purposes the struggle for the machine exists almost for its own sake. In this world the only apparently functioning branch of any government appears to be the secret agencies who wage infinite war against one another for incremental tactical advantage. The countryside has been devastated and hollowed out, presumably by generations of conflict and malign neglect. Not too far from reality in certain parts of the former Eastern Bloc.
The line between reality and dream is a fragile one within the book, and Quievreux seems to take delight in wrong-footing the reader in these regards. Sometimes the blurring of lines can be effective, at other times confusing - but in this instance I am disinclined to penalize the book for being confusing when that is so clearly a desired effect. It is a book that perhaps cannot be understood until it has been reread. Then, perhaps, it may be easier to simply allow the book to take effect, secure in the knowledge that, like any good dream, any actual literal interpretation will be only that - a subjective summation of a discomforting stream-of-consciousness.
The Immersion Project is at its best when it sets aside the circuitous babble of secret agents talking like middle managers (itself a nightmarish and totalitarian effect) and gets down to the business of illustrating bad dreams. Pages pass filled with random shapes and abstract designs, set in consecutive order like a pile of random snapshots scattered across the floor and reassembled into random order. Strange monsters made of shadow stalk and loom, rising from the loam of half-forgotten memory to harass the unwary. Although the aforementioned Burns is the most pressing touchstone - the tiny scarred mouths screaming at unknowable horror are kind of a giveaway, there - I was also reminded of another nightmare narrative, Jeff Nicholson’s seminal Through the Habitrails. That book got at something similar in terms of illustrating the ability of the human subconscious to foster the most imaginative cruelties for ourselves. Whether or not you find the book to your liking will depend ultimately on how much patience you are willing to extend to a book that declares at the outset that the only sense it ultimately makes will be, like any good dream, only the product of your projection.