Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Jonathan Lethems second novel, Amnesia Moon, is set in a post-apocalyptic United States which is reminiscent of Philip K. Dicks Dr. Bloodmoney. Vast area of radiation make much of the country uninhabitable, and Chaos, the main character, lives at the edge of the town of Hatfork, which is populated by fur-covered mutants. Chaos serves as a liaison between the residents of Hatfork and the fat man known as Kellogg, who is the source of food for the area. When the food supply dries up, Chaos and Melinda Self, one of the fur-covered Hatrackers, leave town to find out what happened to Kellogg.
Lethem, as is his tendency, has written a surrealistic novel in which nothing is quite what it appears. The action moves seemlessly between a description of Chaos adventures and his dreams. Frequently, the reader is unclear where the boundary lies, but it is clear that Chaos is also unclear what is real and what isnt. Although Chaos lived prior to the change, he has only the vaguest memories of his earlier life, not sure what his own name was or even what caused the destruction of the old civilization.
At times, Lethems jumping between dream and reality is disconcerting. It isnt always easy to tell what is dream and what is real. Frequently, the reader will begin a chapter thinking Chaos is having a dream only to discover that it has a tangible effect on Chaos and Melinda. This, of course, is part of what Lethem is trying to do in Amnesia Moon.
Chaos, we learn, is a dreamer. When the novel opens, Chaos refuses to sleep because his sleep, like that of the other residents of Hatfork, is invaded by Kelloggs dreams. In Chaoss showdown with Kellogg, he gets an inkling that his own dreams are just as powerful as Kelloggs, a fact which is demonstrated as Chaos and Melinda travel throughout the west. What Chaos doesnt know is exactly how powerful his dreams are and what his power means. His journeys are an attempt to discover his power, as well as his past.
On the way, Lethem shows us several portraits of a fragmented America. These range from the city which is in a perpetual green fog to a nearly abandoned strip of car dealerships and fast food restaurants. Chaos and Melinda eventually put down roots in Vacaville, a city which has a social structure based on the idea that luck can be measured and anybody who is important is on television. The concept of luck being measured is reminiscent of Lethems debut novel, Gun, with Occasional Music and the issue of maintaining ones karma.
In looking to discover who he is, Lethems Chaos begins with his self-image defined by those around him: Kellogg, Edge, Edie, Cale. Eventually, he comes to understand that he has control over the world around him and his own position in it. Lethem introduces this realization by an adept use of viewpoint shifts. While Chaos provides the majority of the viewpoint in Amnesia Moon, the novel opens from Edges point of view. Later, upon Chaoss arrival in Vacaville, we see him from Edies point of view. Both show how Chaos is viewed by other people who know him to varying extents.
At its best, Lethems writing is not particularly accessible to the average reader and Amnesia Moon is no exception. This isnt to say that Lethems work shouldnt be read. . . it should. The reader just needs to know that Lethem does not write mind candy. His works are convoluted and require the reader to think about what has been written. Furthermore, Amnesia Moon is filled with symbolism, some of which is apparent upon first reading and other symbols which become apparent only after the reader has had some time to think about it.
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