Denaturalizing Authority and Learning to Live in the Flesh: Jonathan Lethem's Amnesia Moon

©1998 L.Timmel Duchamp

In Jonathan Lethem's Amnesia Moon, protagonist Everett Moon, aka Chaos, tours the wonderland of 1990s US cultural imaginary and ideology. The protagonist has forgotten his (indeed, all) history, and travels to recover fragments of them that he hopes to piece together into a semblance of sense. He begins his travels as Chaos, caught up in the horror of post-nuclear apocalypse, briefly visits a scene of blinding ecological disaster and encounters the edge of a war between humans and aliens, experiences the emptiness of New Age southern California suburban mobility, and finally ends up in Philip K. Dick-land, where certain individuals make the reality everyone else is obliged to live, and where an injection can bring one into a temporary reality inhabited by apparently deceased persons. Each spatial territory Everett Moon visits is centered on a familiar trope that organizes reality around it (though Philip K. Dick-land is arguably the master trope of them all). They appear to Everett Moon both as separate geographical territories (traversed by his own dreams) and as choices on a menu-- choices he ultimately rejects for the material concreteness of the other. Amnesia Moon could be described, therefore, as a fable of learning to live in the flesh and love it: in total, flagrant opposition to the carnephobia that most male-authored cyberpunk, for instance, so notably celebrates.

Those wanting to read the book as nailed-down science fiction have the option of choosing from among the tropes on the menu the one best able to explain the fracturing of reality into many separate versions:

"The hives," Vance said. "They're growing inside all the houses. Humans have to tend them, bring them food, trinkets, little offerings. The place where the aliens come from, the dominant species is some sort of hive intelligence, and the bigger animals serve as their arms and legs. So that's what they did to us when they landed. Turned us into animals. And they don't really give a damn about the condition of their animals, not when there are so many of them.


"Listen: why do you think the world got broken up? Because the aliens landed. It was a defensive response, an evolutionary step. Reality shattered to isolate the hives." "I don't understand how the dreams come into," said Everett. "The hives are responsible for that-- they induce the dreaming. The more the world coheres, the more they can grab. It's a countermove. Your dreamers are dupes, Moon." (181)

But the epistemological and emotional focal places in the novel's geography are Vacaville and San Francisco. These places are mysteriously linked, and while San Francisco (Philip K. Dick-land, tropicly speaking) seems to hold the key to the elusive "break" that apparently fractured reality into self-contained, autocratically controlled territories, Vacaville (a name which conjures up both emptiness and cows), intolerable as it is, is the place where Everett becomes fully real and realized as a human being-- saved, as it were, by the love of a good woman and the surround of what turns out to be a full-blown nuclear family (in the shape of Edie's children and his fellow traveler, Melinda, a mutantly-furred teenager). Vacaville is distinguished by (a) the enforced mobility of every household, which is required by law to move every Wednesday and Saturday; (b) the old gas-guzzling cars everyone drives and their concomitant mall; (c) television dominated by government officials, who star in every show; (d) citizens writing "tickets" to other citizens, fining them for violations of the rules, which includes lack of deference to government officials; and (e) the bureaucratization of "Luck." The bureaucratization of "Luck" is the ideological key the other characteristics of Vacaville reinforce and materialize--- and, it might be argued, the key to understanding how those living under the domination of the other realities have no means of disputing or revolting against them (and in some cases, look to Everett Moon to break the dominant reality's collective grip on them).

In Vacaville one's place in the economic and political pecking order (i.e., in society) is supposedly determined by luck. Residents are required to take an examination testing their luck, and are assigned jobs and places to live depending on how they score. Every negative thing (shades of bad karma!) that happens to a person, regardless of agency or intention, is chalked up to "luck," and if someone with a lower quotient of luck gets involved in a negative situation, that person gets tagged with all the added bad luck rather than sharing it with the others involved, simply because the latter have higher quotients of luck and thus cannot be responsible for anything negative coming down. When residents accumulate a sufficient amount of bad luck, they can be banished from society (by having their cars taken and not being assigned housing) to a "bad luck shelter." In the case of Edie, the woman Everett Moon loves, "bad luck" comes from a government official's desire to fuck her. She is trapped in a situation where the only way out of her "bad luck" is to submit.

This system of bureaucratized luck as Lethem works it out is a vivid depiction of the Frankfurt School's analysis of social relations in capitalism. In capitalism, the opposition between individual and society is naturalized into a self-contained reality disguising the fact that the single individual is impotent "in an anarchic, contradictory inhuman reality."See Max Horkheimer, "Authority and the Family," in Critical Theory: Selected Essays (The Seabury Press, NY, 1972), tr. M. O'Connell et al., pp.47-128. * As Jessica Benjamin notes, the individual appears to be in opposition to the abstract society, which is seemingly objective and immutable and whose origins in human cooperation and labor are obscured:

Society takes on the appearance of nature, determined by its own laws, and reason seeks to grasp not to shape it, to accommodate not to act upon it. Thus the members of all classes, mystified by the opacity of social relations, see themselves bowing to necessity, acknowledging facts (e.g., property relations), when they play their roles in producing a system of domination. Reason as the acceptance of necessity-- and, of course, the attempt to make the best of it-- is interwoven with rationality as the acceptance of responsibility for one's individual fate.Jessica Benjamin, "Authority and the Family Revisited: or, A World without Fathers?" New German Critique 13 (1978), p. 45. (Benjamin, 45)
Benjamin emphasizes the moral qualities granted to luck:
The work ethic, or performance principle, is based upon the seeming consistency between individual effort and success. Precisely because of the "nature" of social relations, a competitive framework appears in which the individual seems to be master of her/his own destiny, or seems to be to blame for her/his own fate. For example, class does not appear has a structural relationship (between groups) but as an attribute between individuals who merit their position. It takes the form of a comparison between individuals in their relation to fortune, rather than a mutually conditioning relation in which one group has power over another. Consequently authority-- and authorship-- lies not in a class but in "fortune." No one is responsible for the whole, but everyone is responsible for himself.Ibid.(Benjamin, 45)
Thus it is in Vacaville that merit is determined by "luck," and the luckiest of all are the rulers who are the stars everyone most admires and takes an obsessive interest in. When late in the novel Everett Moon returns to Vacaville, he finds that Cooley, the government official letching after Edie, has physically deformed all those with "bad luck"-- including Edie-- as a means of controlling her, thus writing each person's "luck" on her/his body. The parallel is unmistakable: in our own world, women who are personally impoverished are allowed to share the wealth of the men they are companions to-- but only for so long as the relationship holds up. Edie is transformed into her old, physically beautiful self only when fucked by Cooley and momentarily "sharing" his "luck"; away from him, she is made ugly and undesirable, because her luck, being bad, is written on her body.

Everett Moon sees the bureaucratization of luck for the bullshit it is. He finds it difficult to understand how others unresistingly succumb to it as though it were the natural order. Even Fault, an outsider from San Francisco who blows into town only to fetch Everett away, falls for it, succumbing to Cooley's authority as though it were natural to do so. And in fact, everywhere Everett travels, he finds different faces to the same illusion of "society" with its rules and authority as natural, objective and immutable. Some of Everett's dreams-- which everyone around him shares-- disturb the illusion, while others are incorporated by father/authority figures into upholding it. In a sense, Everett Moon represents the artist, struggling against the naturalized rationalization of authority while at the same time unwittingly serving it. In San Francisco he's offered the power to create his own illusion of a natural, objective society for others to live in-- something better, some of the characters try to persuade him, better, at least, than all the other societies already existing. His sees that his reward would be possession of a woman haunting his dreams, but that the price would be becoming, himself, the father/authority figure whose power he has been seeking to evade.

In the end, his choice is to hit the road with Edie and his newly assembled family, as "just a fat slob getting out of town." (p.238) "You made yourself harmless, pal... Insubstantial," one of the father/authority figures tells Everett in his final dream.

"Cooley and Ilford don't matter," Everett said, after thinking a bit. "I just had to get Edie out. I did that. (238)


[The father/authority figure] reached over to pat Everett's stomach again. "You're in the family way." This time, when he patted it, Everett's fat was substantial. "Guess you're taking on some real stature after all... Family's the best type of FSR." (238)

FSR is "Finite Subjective Reality." Everett "drifted, thinking, I decline revenge. I decline my power." (238) It's not the idea of family, significantly, that Everett embraces, but concrete material relations with the individuals in his newly-assembled family. The fact that he accepts his fleshliness without even the slightest attempt to evade (or transcend) it is underscored by his not dreaming himself back to his original thinness (though he dreams away the deformities Cooley imposed on the others). Everett Moon has become focused on human relations, not their idealization. Appropriately, then, when at the end of the book he spots a helicopter in the sky that resembles one from the LA-alien hives' reality and finds it a "troubling sight," the last sentence of the book concludes: "Everett concentrated on the road."

June, 1998


*See Max Horkeimer, "Authority and the Family," in Critical Theory: Selected Essays (The Seabury Press, NY, 1972), tr. M. O'Connell et al., pp.47-128.

Works Cited

This essay first appeared in the New York Review of Science Fiction, September, 1998.

back to homepage