Monday, March 17, 2008

Amnesia Moon, by Jonathan Lethem (1995)

Lethem is known to me as writing fine novels of New York life, such as Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, which I plan to read one day. It came as something of a surprise to see this book sitting on the library shelf, as the blurb refers to it as being a novel of the future and the cover makes it look like a bad horror movie (it actually has "A Road Movie" as a sub-title).

Something has happened to America (maybe the world, but it never gets a mention). No-one is quite sure what, or even when it happened, although many call it "the break", when "a weirdness came over the USA" so the nation was all broken up, localized, everyone living in someone's dream. Each district has become a Finite Subjective Reality, which is why no-one can really explain what happened: each place has its own FSR and this generates its own myth about what happened. (Not surprising, in that the novel is a group of different pieces Lethem wrote and was then inspired to join together.)

In Hatfork, Wyoming, they say it was bombs which created mutants out of the human race; in Los Angeles, they're under attack from aliens, while in San Francisco, well, that place was so weird to begin with that no-one noticed the appearance of antiGrav cycles and robot televangelists.

Chaos, or Everett, or Moon, or Everett Moon (it all depends where he is) lives in the old cinema in Hatfork, where he seems to live a slothful life, his only activity being to get booze and act as go-between for the local bigwig, Kellogg, and his town. He's lived her for what seems to be a decade, but has no idea what came before. He has these awful dreams, as does everyone in the district. Little does he know that he can generate his own dreams, dreams which have the power to re-shape society. Not really sure why Kellogg doesn't tell him earlier, but when he finally does, Chaos does a runner, along with a very hairy young girl, Melinda.

Their progress seems to be more a result of accident than design although getting to California does appear to have been an objective. They get there via a couple of interesting places - one which is covered in a thick green fog, where the populace has no desire to see what might exist elsewhere. Then there is the Strip, where every shop glares with (solar powered) neon but there's virtually no-one to see it. The one business still functioning is McDonalds: such is the rigour of their rule book and the simplicity of the staff running it, that all they know is how to run their McDonalds. They don't seem to notice they only have one customer - a hippy who rescues Chaos and Melinda.

Then there's Vacaville, where all the residents have to move twice a week, leaving everything behind, and where the only shows on TV are gameshows featuring the local government officials. Here, people are citation mad, a notion Lethem has a lot of fun with. Everything seems to run on a calculus of luck - those who have poor luck get sent to "Bad Luck camp"; presumably, those with the best luck become "government stars". Its a mad sort of place, made worse when someone decides to distort everyone's appearance, as if they're in a funhouse. This gives great power to the government, as they retain the ideal body image: "everyone is in love with the Government".

But, ultimately, all these places are diversions: we get to the heart of the story when Chaos is cajoled into going to San Francisco, where he realises all of his pre-Break friends are. But there are those who want to use his power for their own ends; he can be used to dream a society as servient as that of Vacaville. Ilford Cole has some power to dream; he can change people from one thing to another (which leads to a brilliantly surreal chapter, told from the point of view of a gold clock) but it is not enough. Of course, for Chaos to ever actually do anything, whether it is for Ilford or to prevent his mad plans, he needs to first believe in his own power to conjure.



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