A Review of Liz Harmer's The Amateurs
Review by Krista Foss
When we can finally time travel, the world will empty out. The grids will go down, the crops will scorch, food will rot in the grocery stores. Abandoned houses, even those lavish turreted behemoths, will become campgrounds for vermin and squatters.
Why stay? Especially when you can port yourself back to when you were young and in love, the world was still hopeful and green, green, green?
The should-I-stay-or-should-I-go dilemma is the central premise of Liz Harmer’s novel, The Amateurs, a dystopic debut that’s yearning and elegiac, a sprawling commentary on technology and the post-quantum meaning of life.
In the book’s first part, we are introduced to the eponymous amateurs, a group of stragglers left in the carcass of a recognizable former steeltown. They scratch out a thin existence eating browning fruit and Spaghetti Os, and when they’re lucky, grilling the occasional confused ungulate that wanders into a rifle’s crosshairs. In this place, “Vegetation and rot were enemies now. Raccoons gazed at you slant-eyed and chattered ominously all night.”
A technological escape hatch, a zippered shimmer called a port, is around every corner, inside every abandoned living room. As their loved ones before them, it beckons the amateurs to trade their current bleak existence for subconscious wish fulfilment: a bonneted gambol on Jane Austen’s front lawn or braving sniper fire on WW2’s front lines.
The amateurs’ dilemma and heartbreaks are vivified through Marie, a gun-toting former artist who is adamant she won’t leave her looted hometown, and more precisely, her perceived material reality for the promises of the corporate multiverse.
Marie is also waiting. Her ex-husband and soul-mate Jason—a seeker and skeptic who’s investigated lucid dreaming, UFOs, quantum physics—has left by port. Marie is convinced Jason will return to her, even though evidence suggests those who time travel don’t, or can’t, come back.
The situation becomes more complicated when the amateurs’ unofficial leader Philip succumbs to the port, taking along hand-written business cards he thinks will remind him of his original reality and trigger a return.
The longer they hope —for a lost lover, a lost leader or the flagging will to leave for warmer climes, the more the amateurs get on each other’s nerves. And winter (Canadian winter) is coming.
Enter Brandon, a fugitive from PINAcorp, the California technology company responsible for inventing the ports. Brandon is the former PR fixer for PINA founder, Albrecht Doors, a yoga-pant-wearing cross between Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. (Doors is anglicized version of Durer, and namesake of the German Renaissance genius who famously had a thing for the apocalypse.) After discovering that Doors knew all along that people were not choosing time travel of their own free will, Brandon goes AWOL from PINA. He shows up in the northern lunch-bucket town in search of his mother. When he meets Marie, he recognizes a more promising future than any port can offer.
Harmer is a wryly intelligent guide to untangling the tensions between technology and humanity, spirituality and materiality, reality and perception. At times, there’s a gridlock of themes and ideas; moments that sparkle with suspense or succinct wisdom struggle to fully resonate. In one of many beautiful asides, Marie reflects on the amateurs’ gathering spot: “The church was a place to know that things were mysterious, and weird, and that people might feel if not significance, the ghost of that significance.”
Ultimately, one can’t finish The Amateurs without admiring an author whose characters contemplate infinite universes in one breath and dodge bullets or shoot dinner in another.
In the short chapter that follows Philip as he lands from the port into France’s WW2-ravaged countryside, Harmer lets rip with the urgency and heft of her talent. She paints a man suffering a vertiginous disorientation as he fights to remember who he is, where he comes from, and whether he can go back. Meanwhile, he keeps marching forward: “…his skin burned in rotating spots. Sharp like bee stings in his elbow and then in his buttock, exploding stars of pain, left then right, each moment proof that he was here now, in his body, captive.”