FDBluth’s #CBR4 Review #7: Amnesia Moon by Jonathan Lethem
Mystery is a curious concept in the context of storytelling; its presence intrigues the audience, urging further exploration and commitment, while a sword of Damocles looms over, ready to fall at the slightest of mishandle. Too many stories have failed this way, nudging the audience along for far too long, without proper satisfaction, losing body and soul along the way. So why does it remain a popular way to foster interest in a story?
Perhaps it is the sense of largeness mystery invokes, a feeling that what we see and hear and read are not everything the story has to offer, that something lies beyond the veil of our limited perception. Or is it our thirst for knowledge, our natural inclination to learn, to understand, to comprehend? In any case, the effectiveness of a proper mystery cannot be understated, even if the answers may not match in effect.
Amnesia Moon, a novel by Jonathan Lethem, tells the story of Chaos, a resident of a post-apocalyptic America, subsiding on dog food cans and sleeping in an abandoned multiplex in the town of Hatfork, Wyoming. One day, Kellogg, the local tyrant who “dreams” his people to order, tells Chaos that the world is not as he believed, that there were no nuclear bombs that turned people into mutants, that everything was a whim of the imaginative. To understand what that means, Chaos leaves his town, accompanied by a fur-covered girl named Melinda, to explore what’s left of the American landscape and find the answer to the mystery of what and who.
What follows is a series of more-or-less unconnected events, with Chaos (and Melinda) as the unifying aspect. Lethem did write the novel by adapting various unpublished short stories he had written into one cohesive whole, and it shows in their wholly unique and seemingly random directions in which the adventure goes. This is not a bad thing, and the stories are organized to have an impact on the overall narrative of Chaos. The experience is somewhat reminiscent of a Philip K. Dick story, appropriate since much of the story echo numerous stories of Dick.
As to the central mystery of what happened to the world and who Chaos is, the story gives a reluctant and unenthusiastic shrug. As so many mysteries do, the intriguing question is perpetuated to the point that a properly satisfying answer seems nigh impossible. The book does answer some, but not all, to the mystery, and what answers we receive seems weak in comparison to the gravity of the question.
This does not hurt the quality, however, because the true strength of the book lies in its colorful characters. As Chaos goes through his journey, we come to love, hate, and care about the people we meet in various places, to a degree that the initial mystery seems inconsequential when compared. The journey becomes one of discovery rather than one of methodical purpose, and it thrives as a result. In fact, the story might have been even better if the few answers we received weren’t there at all.
This book is not for those of us who seek a destination, but for those who seek the journey itself.