This journey of discovery is part American road novel, part ironic Americana, and part homage to Philip K. Dick. Lethem takes tremendous pleasure in overturning American obsessions to discover what lies beneath, often only to discover yet something else to overturn. At the beginning of Amnesia Moon, Chaos is merely a flunky in a town full of flunkies controlled by Kellogg’s dreams. By the end, he may be the sole hope of recovering a lost unified American culture. However, the novel suggests that even if he could dream a new America, the overriding story that his dreams would provide might not be better than the patchwork tyrannies of Hatfork, Vacaville, and San Francisco.
The science-fictional aspects of the book are in some ways grafted on, in the same way that Philip K. Dick often hid deeply serious speculations about reality behind cartoonish rockets-and-rayguns storylines. No irrefutable evidence exists in Lethem’s narrative that there has actually been either a nuclear war or an alien invasion, and most of the characters do not care what has caused society’s breakdown. The explanations invented by those characters who do care provide the science-fictional aspects of Amnesia Moon.
On some levels, the book is an absurdist fable, continually peeling away layers of reality with no real end or real answers in sight. At the close of the book, when Moon sees one of the strange machines that earlier paint-bombed his car, it may be human guerrillas warring with aliens—or it may be a local manifestation of someone’s dream—or it may be an aspect of Moon’s own dreams, dreams which remain mysterious to Moon throughout the story. Is Moon creating all of what he sees? Where are the boundaries between dreamer and dream, and between Moon’s dreams and the dreams of others? Lethem’s novel avoids providing concrete answers, while taking readers on a ride through a bizarre yet oddly familiar America.