by Liz Harmer
I find it interesting to consider what influences your opinion of a book while reading. The big thing that spurred this thought along was a passage in The Amateurs where the protagonist, Marie, realizes how starkly unique she is just before discussing architecture influenced by architecture influenced by architecture. (I won’t directly quote it because the passage may change significantly from my advance reading copy before publication.) I read it and wondered whether what I saw as a joke about narcissism blinding someone to her commonness was intentional or not. Given what I’d experienced up to that point, I honestly suspected that the truth had more to do with the statements being wholly separate, at the service of characterization and world-building, with no thought regarding what I saw as to their interrelated nature. And, as I didn’t seem to be very generous with my interpretation of the author’s intentions, I’d obviously cultivated a low opinion of Harmer and her work up to that point, which also meant that I likely wasn’t enjoying the book.
And it’s unfortunate, because The Amateurs sounded like something I could really get into. It’s the near future, and time machines (ports) have become widely available throughout the world. The problem is people who go in don’t seem to come back, intentionally or otherwise, and the global population majorly dropped off as a result, followed by a crumbling of the basic infrastructure that held society together. The story moves between a small community working to survive in a large, all but abandoned, urban environment and what remains of the company that made the ports––the latter living on a sequestered compound with a growing religious-cultish vibe. Both groups are growing increasingly desperate as resources dwindle, and fear they need to strike out into the great unknown beyond their immediate surroundings.
I don’t feel that this synopsis necessarily does the book justice, but I think it’s one of the best I can come up with to explain things succinctly. On the one side, the story has a lot to do with Marie’s reluctance to move on while she clings to the hope that her ex-husband will return after vanishing through a port; on the other, it follows Brandon––we’ll call him the secondary protagonist––as he uncovers evidence that his boss, the ports’ inventor, had a much greater understanding of the dangers of these machines than he let on. In all honesty, however, not too much happens. The Amateurs is more about the setting than the plot, basically trying to explain what happened to the world and what the ports actually are. And, even when things seem to be moving forward toward something resembling a plot, Harmer frequently interrupts any suspense or momentum she starts to cultivate in order to give us more background on her apocalypse. Add to this the fact that the two major storylines intersect, interrupting each other without having a satisfactory resolution to either, despite both seeming relatively straightforward, independently. It starts to feel as though the story is told out of sequence––not necessarily a novel concept for a time travel narrative, but troublesome in this instance both because this makes things confusing and because I struggle to find the purpose for choosing to do so. The payoff or the strong cohesive thread that makes this worthwhile is either nonexistent or I was at least too stupid to find it.
Now, upon finishing The Amateurs, I was hit with a sense that Harmer’s world-building was problematic, but perhaps for misguided reasons. Beyond the characters’ immediate surroundings, we learn very little about the setting. I was able to justify keeping readers in the dark as mirroring the characters being cut off from the world after the grid went down, but I started to question it when Brandon travels between our two main settings without seemingly revealing much of this presumably barren North America. However, we did take a brief interlude into a vibrant colony of people on the way, people who seem to be doing just fine and who welcome Brandon with open arms and generosity. I realize now that my dissatisfaction has less to do with a problem describing the setting, and more a problem with the setting lacking danger, with only kind, respectful people being left after the apocalypse. Even things presented as potentially dangerous, such as a stranger hiding out on the fringes of Marie’s community, are met with such a lack of concern by everyone that the author immediately cultivates the same mentality within the readers––this reader, at least. And the ease with which Brandon assembles supplies and leaves his former boss’ fortified compound effectively kills any attempts to present their new society as a frightening dictatorship.
So, I really don’t have a lot of great things to say about The Amateurs, but it’s possible that I misunderstood a great deal of it. It comes across as an attempt at some sort of metaphysical thought experiment or a commentary about nostalgia clouding our judgment, about unhealthy ways people ineffectively cope with loss, but what comes out more clearly is a superficial expression of Harmer’s low opinion of modern society.