Monday, April 27, 2009

Jonathan Lethem - Amnesia Moon ***

Jonathan Lethem's Amnesia Moon was the third of three books I picked up at an amazing little used bookstore that I stumbled upon in Hamilton, New Zealand. It is also the second book I've read and reviewed from the genre-bending, middle-aged Brooklynite--my first being his National Book Critics Circle Award-winning 1999 novel, Motherless Brooklyn, which I enjoyed profusely. Amnesia Moon dials back the timeline another four years from Motherless Brooklyn, to Lethem's second novel, a dystopian cyberpunk novel set in a fractured America.

An event has taken place, changing all of America into a very Mad Max-ian landscape of warring cults, burned-out cities and lots and lots of conspiracy. Only, no one has any idea what made the change in the first place, because in each town and points between there are people in seats of power telling different tales about what was really going on. But not in words, not standing before podiums and shouting on about what is right and wrong, fact and fiction--but directly into the dreams of anyone who is within range. Which is where we first find Chaos, living in Hatfork, Wyoming, his dreams being fed to him by the local tyrant who calls himself Kellogg and claims that bombs were dropped all over the country, splintering it into what he sees around him.

But Chaos starts having dreams of a past that doesn't coincide with Kellogg's visions and he goes off in search of the truth. It's a road story at its heart and a sci-fi adventure at its soul, but cerebrally, like any good science-fiction literature, it is an indictment of our political system. With every faction Chaos finds, living their own separate truths in the middle of nowhere, its hard not to imagine how our own country would be dismantled by some huge disaster; where lines would be drawn and who would join who in a fight for supremacy or just plain survival.

On the other side of that coin, however, much like most science-fiction literature, Amnesia Moon has got its fair share of glaring flaws. A lack of characterization is prevalent, a complaint I usually don't make because it's a flaw I readily accept in my own work. Here, however it's a bit more prevalent than usual. Though we should get to know Chaos inside and out, I find myself still unsure about who exactly he is. I know his place in the canon of sci-fi, what his character is meant to portray--but as a person, Chaos gets little time to be anything at all. The novel is also very episodic in nature, and even in that, flies about through reality and dream, hither and thither through time and space. With its sparse description and quick pace, along with the somewhat complex ideas Lethem presents about the subjectivity of reality, the story does become a bit unhinged at times.

Amnesia Moon is not Lethem's best work (and I haven't even read The Fortress of Solitude yet) but it is quite an intriguing piece when looking at from whence the author came. Seeing his work in genre before he, along with modern lit cohort Michael Chabon, began twisting around what it meant to be a mainstream author is invaluable. If nothing else, a window into his progression as a writer is worth the price of the book if not the story itself. Which still is. Though I did only pay $7NZ for it. Bargain shopping abroad, baby.

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