Mirabile Does Genre Fiction: Historical Novels, Science Fiction, &Jonathan Lethem’s Brilliant Amnesia Moon

Are you ready?

A quick blog.

7:45 p.m.

I love genre fiction.

librarian sexyIt all started when my friend, Maya, a former librarian who went back to school in classics, recommended Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. As a librarian, she had had a lot of free time, and science fiction was her favorite genre.

Classics departments teem with genre-loving ex-librarians, and library schools with genre-loving classicists who can’t find jobs.

And though the ex-librarians didn’t quite look like the woman in the picture, they certainly knew how to party:  on Diet Coke and popcorn, that is.

Classicists are a surprisingly unclassical lot when it comes to English literature.  You would expect them to read nothing but Sophocles and Anne Carson out of the classroom.  Instead, they recommended historical novels like Susan Howatch’s The Rich Are Different, the story of a banking family, and all the characters based on Caesar and the First Triumvirate, if I remember correctly?  which complemented our studies.

Augustus John WilliamsA better bet was John Williams’ Augustus, the National Book Award–winning historical novel by the writer now best known for Stoner, reissued by NYRB a few years ago.  But Augustus is just as brilliant, the story of Augustus’ bid for power after Julius Caesar’s murder and his dealings with the likes of Cicero and Mark Antony, some of our favorite historical characters.

Shambleau c. l. mooreThe most notable of all my classicial friends were the professors who were SF fans.  After I earned my degree, I became fair “prey” to the profs, who only had about seven women students a year, so I looked good, surprisingly good.  They were a decent lot, if clueless, with their offers of vacations in, of all places, New Jersey (they would have had a better chance with Rome, but I declined all invitations:  they were my friends and father figures).  One of them, by far the most brilliant, introduced me to the science fiction of C. L. Moore, Joanna Russ, and some other great American writers. And, by the way, the Library of America should have hired him to edit one of their science fiction books, because he could have recommended a few books by women, and we know that’s not LOA’s strong point.  (By the way, I am a big supporter of LOA, but they need to publish more interesting women’s books.)


Amnesia Moon Jonathan LethemAnd now just a little bit about Jonathan Lethem, one of my favorite American literary writers, the author of Chronic City (my favorite), The Fortress of Solitude (my second favorite), and the National Critics Circle Award-winning Motherless Brooklyn (my third favorite).  I am now exploring his  1990s work, which was science fiction.

Amnesia Moon, his second novel, is surreal, funny, and sad.  Is the hero, Chaos, a survivor of a postapocalyptic world, dreaming his world, or his world real?

Chaos lives in a former cineplex in Hatfork, Wyoming.  He tries not to sleep, because he and the other residents all dream the dreams of the local despot Kellogg.  Kellogg is in charge of everything:  dreams, history, and the funky canned food he sometimes distributes.  Nobody can remember what was there before the apocalypse.

When Chaos decides to take a trip to get away from Kellogg, Melinda, a furry mutant teenage girl,  happens to be in the car.  They take off for Colorado, where they find a world of green fog, dreamed by another dreamer.  And in Vacaville, California, where their car breaks down, they find a city based on luck tests and moving twice a week to houses assigned by the government.

In Vacaville he tells Edie, with whom he falls in love, that there was a war. “Everyone remembers some kind of disaster.  But it’s different in different places.”

Then a hippie friend says Chaos needs to go back to San Francisco to see his best friend and girlfriend.  Chaos remembers little about them, but wants to know his past.  And when he starts dreaming everybody’s dreams–well, you can imagine.  San Francisco is by far the scariest place in the book.

When I read Lethem, I always wonder how he comes up with such strange plots.  His style is astonishing.  You really read him for his style.

A great book, not just great SF.