By Jonathan Lethem
Somnambulist’s very favourable review spurred me to read Lethem’s take on post-apoca sci-fi. I loved Motherless Brooklyn and enjoyed Fortress of Solitude, so chances were good that I’d like Amnesia Moon. Instead I found it to be an unsatisfying read, due to some boring segments and an annoyingly deliberate vagueness about the events that led to the demise of American civilization as we know it.
Some mysterious apocalyptic event had caused people to lose their memory and identity. Depending on where you’re from, there’s a different interpretation of what happened, so the event is only referred to as “the change”, or “the disaster”, or “the war”. But probably the most accurate is “the break” because at some point, reality got ruptured. What people used to know as reality was replaced by dreams… someone else’s dream. The dreamers impose their dreams on everyone else around him or her, because everyone else is merely a receiver.
To paraphrase Somnambulist, the dreamers use their power to alter realities, change memory, and control people. Each place uses this function in different ways to establish tyrannical control. Each place has only one dreamer, so there are pockets of different realities all over what used to be the American landscape. A pretty neato concept, really. The only problem is I’m just not sure if I liked the way Lethem executed it. I had gone into this novel not knowing anything about it, but I think if I had an idea of what the concept was, I would've been less confounded from the start. In any case, if you’re interested in reading this book, and want to be kept in the dark, read no further as there will be SPOILERS ahead.
Somewhere in Little America (probably the Midwest), a guy named Chaos is having conflicts with the local dreamer, Kellogg, and soon escapes the town of Hatfork (along with a hirsute female adolescent companion named Melinda) on a search for truth and self (not necessarily in that order). People he meets, he asks them what really happened, but they give their own vague spin on it, because nobody really knows. There are a lot of “I don’t knows” or “There’s a lot I don’t remember. Or understand.” The best answer by far: “It’s like a jump cut in a movie. Everyone is missing something.”
If I had to sum up the premise of Amnesia Moon, it’s about a guy with amnesia taking an acid, I mean, road trip out west through a dream-induced post-apocalyptic America. Somewhere in the Rockies, he gets lost in a land of opaque green mist and ends up inside a sterile complex populated white-suited bureaucrats and a pissed off dream-lady who tells him to move on. Then he ends up in a strange town called Vacaville where all the citizens have to move house twice a week and work a different job each day in order to test their luck. Instead of invasive dreams, the government bureacrats produce, star in and broadcast TV shows that the citizens are forced to watch (kind of like the CBC!). There he meets Edie, a young mother struggling to conform to Vacaville’s weird spin on dystopian society.
Then an old friend of Chaos named Fault shows up from San Francisco because he was able to “tune into” Chaos’ dreams. Edie agrees to look after Melinda while Chaos (now also known by his previous name Everett) continues his journey to San Francisco where he kinda sorta gets some answers. For instance, Chaos/Everett discovers he’s actually a powerful dreamer, he’s just been repressing his ability. Then he realizes that he was partly, if not totally, responsible for “the break” which all started in San Francisco (from what I can glean from the vague dialogue)! At some point, Chaos/Everett realizes that when he thought he had escaped from Hatfork to go west, he was actually going back to the place he originally ran away from!
Even though the novel was slim, I didn’t find the story structure very tight or cohesive. I found out later that the loose structure was likely due to the fact that Lethem cobbled together a novel from several of his unpublished short stories, which are all influenced in various degrees by Philip K Dick.
This is not to say I didn't like the book, as there were a number of cool and humourous moments in the story. Like how Hatfork was described as a bit of a shithole town, even in post-apoca standards:
Nobody went this way anymore because since the war, Hatfork was a sick town. Full of mutants and sexual deviants… Hatfork was a hairy town. Every woman from Hatfork he’d seen undressed—and he’d seen a few—had hair where she shouldn’t.
Or when Chaos and Melinda are lost in the land of green mist and run into a hippie who exclaims:
“Hey! Wow! What are you cats doing out here? … This is like, nowhere, you know. What, did you just come out of the Emerald City? Hey, that is one a hairy chick, man.”
Or when Chaos, in order to talk to his old friend, Cale, has to inject him like a drug. Or when Chaos is having another one of his rambling conversations with Kellogg, who I kind of picture as Jeff Bridges vis-a-vis The Dude:
“… That’s the way it has to be for you. You’ll always be living in an FSR… Finite Subjective Reality... You go creating a little area of control around you, until you bump into the next guy with his. A little sphere of reality and unreality, sanity and insanity, whatever you pull together. There’s no hope of sorting it out. That’s the way you live. FSR.”
Even though I haven’t read a lot of Philip K Dick, his stylistic tropes are easily recognizable in Amnesia Moon. I think if you’re already familiar with the work of PK Dick, this would make a much more rewarding read. As it stands, I only found this novel to be mildly amusing at best.
Here's another review which expressed how I felt.