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REVIEW: Amnesia Moon by Jonathan Lethem

REVIEW SUMMARY: Jonathan Lethem channels Philip K. Dick.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A man named Chaos, who may have the power to shape reality through his dreams, travels America in search of the truth behind the calamity that changed the world.

PROS: Engaging, quickly-read prose; pocket versions of reality mix it up and keep it fun; well-drawn characters.
CONS: No definitive explanation given of the apocalypse so there is a partial feeling of being lost.
BOTTOM LINE: This is a well-written, reality-bending story that is perhaps more accessible than some of Philip K. Dick’s stranger novels that play on the same themes.

When I attended ApolloCon earlier this year, guest of honor David G. Hartwell briefly mentioned how mainstream fiction author Jonathan Lethem, as editor of the Library of America’s omnibus volume of Philip K. Dick novels, was giving something back to the science fiction community where he got his start. Having just read Lethem’s second novel, 1995’s Amnesia Moon, it’s easy to see why Lethem would suggest Dick as the subject of the omnibus. Amnesia Moon is reminiscent of a Philip K. Dick novel, playing heavily with the illusion of reality.

At the opening of Amnesia Moon, we meet Chaos, a wannabe loner who confines himself to an abandoned multiplex in a post-apocalyptic America. The town harbors residents, many of them mutants, who rely on the tyrannical Kellogg for food, but they also rely on Chaos to represent them. Chaos soon learns from Kellogg that the post-apocalyptic scenario is a sham, that the “bombs never fell”. The reality they are living in, as real as it may seem, is a construct. Furthermore, according to Kellogg, their reality is partially built by Chaos himself. Chaos is not happy with that and, more importantly to him, the absence of any memory of his life before the unnamed disaster that changed it all. So he leaves town, accompanied by a fur covered young girl named Melinda, in search of answers.

Along the way, Chaos (who comes to learn that his name was once Everett) meets communities of people who are living their own pocket versions of reality. For example, there’s a hilltop community that lives in a green fog and there’s a town where government agents are TV celebrities. Each stop gives Chaos/Everett another piece of the puzzle, including more information about the dreamers who shape reality. This interests Everett as his own dreams are projected to people who are near him. Does Everett really have the same power? Will he find out what happened to cause “the break”?

“The break” is how the well-drawn characters refer to the recent apocalypse. This is used successfully to build suspense as we try to understand how the world got that way. Yet at the same time, it is a bit frustrating that the true cause of this disaster is never definitively revealed. The best attempt to do so (and the one I guess we are supposed to believe) involves aliens and some gobbledygook explanation about the breakdown of reality, though it is hard to know if that is the true explanation as it could just be part of someone’s imagined reality. Again, we see the influence of Philip K. Dick here; you don’t quite know what the real story is. One unfortunate result of this is a partial feeling of being lost. Or maybe that’s the point?

At any rate, Amnesia Moon is not about the disaster, it’s really about Everett’s search to find himself. Too bad for Everett that he rarely makes any headway; all of his questions are met with vague replies from people who don’t know any more than he does. It’s interesting to see him try, though. Lethem’s engaging prose delivers a quiet story painted with colorful elements: a robotic evangelist here, a reality-inducing drug there (another PKD staple). And of course, reality bending being what it is, there are some bizarre scenes like the one given from the point of view of a sentient clock, or the one where the townspeople are stretched to deformity.

Amnesia Moon may not be the best novel, but it is quite good. It’s well-written and perhaps more accessible than some of Dick’s stranger novels that play on the same themes.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

1 Comment on REVIEW: Amnesia Moon by Jonathan Lethem

  1. I agree with you on most of those points. I saw the Philip Dick “influence” as more of a cribbing of atmosphere and ideas though. There’s none of Dick’s shattering of reality, more of a slow, partial disintegration. The story moves about 3x faster as far as engaging readability and characters go though, so I think this makes up for the cribbing.

    I think the point is (like you said) that even though he doesn’t solve the mystery of the world he does find what is important, which is his own humanity, and uses his reality bending abilities to help those around him. It’s not that black and white or sappy in Lethem’s prose though.

    Also, wikipedia sez he’s working on another Dick influenced novel set in Manhattan. It’ll be interesting to see whether his growth as a writer will make for a more satisfying book in the same vein.

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