In her near-perfect debut novel, Liz Harmer taps into current anxieties about technology to explore themes of transcendence, post-urbanity, and survival. Harmer has won a National Magazine Award and been published in multiple literary journals; her unpublished short-fiction collection was nominated for a Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction in 2014.
The Amateurs, which is this year’s only Knopf New Face of Fiction title, is set in the near future in an almost-deserted steeltown (an unnamed but scarcely disguised Hamilton, Ontario). Its inhabitants now number a scant 42, including artist Marie Desroches, who pines for her philosopher ex-husband, Jason. The population implosion has affected the entire planet thanks to technology giant PINA (a dark satire of Google) and their defining product, the ominous yet seductive “port.”
Buy (or steal) one of these shimmering electronic portals and you can vanish inside it, purportedly transported to somewhere you’d rather be – any time and place, real or imagined. And if you’re not completely sure where that should be, port’s artificial intelligence can decide for you. Jason abandons disconsolate Marie, remarries, then he and his new family all depart through a port in their living room.
As ports pop up worldwide, countless people evanesce – ironically leaving PINA with no market for its other products, such as PINoculars or PINAphones. Then again, there’s no cellular network left anyway. Nor any governments, for that matter. Almost everyone disappears, and virtually no one returns. As the remnants of the local population debate moving south before winter comes, Marie decides to stay put and wait for Jason to return.
Harmer’s prose and pacing are elegant and precise, her characters distinct and engaging. She has a particular gift for visual description: a deer scavenged for food (there are no more functioning grocery stores) and stuffed in a car’s trunk has hooves that resemble “the slender and demurely crossed ankles of a beautiful woman.” In the post-port world, the ratio of humans to animals has dramatically shifted, such that “raccoons and cats … moved in sea-waves, too numerous to count.”
The novel’s dystopian setting is fully realized; as the survivalists struggle and PINA’s remaining staff unravel, nearly every conceivable question about the post-port world is addressed with grace and subtlety. The story is set in North America (split between the steeltown and PINA headquarters in California), but we also learn about the impact of port on the developing world. In one section, we are shown what a person actually experiences when they go through; in another, we hear the voice of the shared “consciousness” that runs the devices.
The Amateurs eschews narrative tidiness; several loose ends are left unresolved. The only unconvincing thread is the one meant to unify the novel as a whole – Marie’s unending devotion to Jason. He is barely present and not particularly likeable in any case; the reader is given little reason for any emotional investment in him. Despite this shortcoming, the novel captivates right up to its final page.