Tag Archives: The Amateurs

Looking At Us Instead Of Our Gadgets | Review of “The Amateurs” by Liz Harmer (2018) Alfred A. Knopf Canada

amateurs

There are many of us who are required to use technology in our day-to-day lives. Those devices have a certain appeal to us at first but then we realize that they seem to control us. The photocopier that never works. The printer that always jams. The computer that runs slower and slower. We finds ourselves being submissive to more and more devices than to actual human supervisors and wonder if that submission is healthy or even that necessary. Liz Harmer has taken those  angsts about technology and given us readers something truly something scary yet familiar to ponder over in her novel The Amateurs. 

Page 34-35 The Dreamers

Long before most of the world had drifted away in lifeboats, long before port was anything more than a theory of Albrecht Doors, Marie and Jason had been newly married and living in romantic squalor. Just downtown and near the church where Philip now held sway, their apartment on Caroline was partitioned within a larger building that had once been called Home for the Friendless. The ceilings were high, and next to their working refrigerator was an icebox that might have worked, too, if they’d known what to do with it. The claw-foot tub in the bathroom was stained grey where it wasn’t chipped to reveal charcoal-hued metal underneath. Its late-addition shower nozzle always pointed in a direction that invited mould into the crevices where no mop could reach. From outside, the red brick building was stately as a manor. For while Marie believed that her artistic fantasies of a place like this had been so strong, she had conjured it.

Both Marie and Jason were still students, and most of the time when they were home they walked around half dressed. Marie kept her fingernails short, and always had blue and black stains on her finger pads. She had set up folding tables in the living room where she listened to singer-songwriters or riot grrrls as she made her prints and hung them along the many rows of twine stretched across every wall; these served as the apartment’s only decorations. Romance had confused her. She had believed in the saddest Leonard Cohen songs, that a song was enough that art was enough She would sing along, pulling a squeegee through a silkscreen frame. At regular intervals, Jason would poke his head out of the second bedroom – his office – to admire her in her paint-stained shorts, her thin bra. To make more coffee, he unplugged the refrigerator. Otherwise the fuse would blow.

One should not think this is a book about the evils of technology but more a peak into the human condition and our relations to our gadgets.  Or as Harmer so poetically  told me in a Q&A about this book: One big inspiration was a fantasy of the good life and how to find it. (Link to my Q&A with Liz HarmerThe plot deals around a odd device called ‘port’ which consumers have found irresistible. Yet since the arrival of the device, the world has started to seriously depopulate. The story covers two groups of people, one living in fading ruins of a major northern city while the other is centred on the remainders of the executives of the parent company of “port” who are trying to come to terms of the outcome of their device. Harmer brilliant captures different personality types and varied states of emotions that truly reflect the human condition.

Page 115 The Optimists

People’s faces were lit bluish by the moon- and LED-light. They were now rising from their seats at the many tables, dancing on the soft artificial turf. During the droughts of the years before port, read grass had become more taboo than smoking or gas-powered cars. The turf was already marred by dents and scratches, coming apart like an old carpet, and the had nothing to replace it with. Soon some of them would probably be enlisted to lay tile.

“Desire used to be the main thing we wanted in a good design,” Dawn said. “But what is desire being replaced here?”

There was no logo for Stable. It was only a word in a person’s mind or mouth.

“With stability,” Brandon said. His thin slices of turkey were complemented by a salad of dandelion greens and balsamic vinegar, and its sharp savour filled his mouth. The scent of manure wafted towards him, but they had got used to the smells of life near poultry, and without indoor plumbing or frequent showering.

The compostable plate was sagging in Brandon’s left hand, so he sat down cross-legged on the turf and tried to balance the plate on his knee.

“I guess so. I haven’t figured out yet what the design principles of stability would be, this sort of stability, or how one would make a logo for it,” Dawn said. She laughed half-heartily. “A few years ago, you know, I would have said, ‘Who wants stability?’ Give me chaos any day.'”

“We’re part of a corporation in the true sense,” Brandon said. “From the Latin corpus.” We’re all parts of a living body, despite our stability. Stability is not unchanging.”

“Latin, huh?”

This is one of those types of reads that is difficult yet worthy of making one’s way through the book and pondering over the themes for a few minutes at the end. Most of our lives are filled with muddled thoughts and fragile emotions and Harmer has brilliantly explored what would happen to us beings if our devices brought out an element of human nature that would ruin civilization. The wording is perfectly crafted and planned. This book took Harmer a bit of time to produce and her time was certainly worth the effort she put into it. This would be a perfect read for a book club to use and discuss.

Page 205

It was too dark to see what made the leaves tremble, what those branches crack. Animals. Wind. He wanted to pore over the memories as one did and archive, to hang onto each morsel from the world he knew. Librarian. Philip McGuire, MLS. He wanted to page through his whole pathetic, lost life: the faces of his children at each stage, the backyard slide stuck with autumn leaves, his wife before the divorce with a red scarf in her black hair. But he was here.

Still, these images made up a self, and he felt as though he’d stepped into the waiting armour of his body, had fastened each of its parts tight.

Landing here and now was to be held under water by a bully. Under water – here – this was all there was. His eyes were open wide now. See? See? You happy now?

“I am most certainly not happy,” Philip whispered, though in the middle of the night he could find a certain kind of pleasure: a moment’s peace, the reward of rest after a long difficult day. Was his presence here a prank? Had everyone been thrown somewhere hard to land, bewildered?

“How do I get home? I want to get home.”

Liz Harmer has documented strong elements of the human condition in her book The Amateurs. It is certainly an unique read yet also one that is worthy of thought and discussions. Certainly a great piece of literature.

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Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s website for “The Amateurs”

Link to Liz Harmer’s website

“One big inspiration (of the book) was a fantasy of the good life and how to find it, which involved having good friends you’d live close to and share life with as well as access to art and fewer cars and concerns” |Q&A with author Liz Harmer on her new book “The Amateurs”

 

amateurs

It is always a thrill to see a new work come available for us readers to enjoy. Liz Harmer has been in my social-media network for a while now and her novel “The Amateurs” is being published on April 24, 2018by Knopf Canada. Liz was kind enough to answer a few questions about her novel and provide some insights into her writing style.

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1) First off, could you give a bit of an outline of “The Amateurs?”

At the centre of The Amateurs is “port”, a product released by a tech company called PINA, which proves to be nearly irresistible. People buy it, use it, and soon the world depopulates. The novel focuses on two groups living after this kind of rapturing apocalypse—a few dozen people living in Hamilton-like former steeltown, and nearly a thousand holing up on the PINA campus in California—who are grieving everything and everyone they’ve lost, afraid of and desperately curious about the ports, and trying to figure out what’s next. The novel moves from the steeltown group to California and back.

 

2) How long did it take you to write the book? Was there anyone or anything that inspired you to write it?

 

One big inspiration was a fantasy of the good life and how to find it, which involved having good friends you’d live close to and share life with as well as access to art and fewer cars and concerns. I had a picture of an economy somehow happily collapsed by technology. This mutated, of course, and I ended up thinking a lot about hinge moments in life in which I might have, for example, completely screwed up my marriage—just the sort of fantasies one has around time travel and do-overs. I thought the idea that portals promising a good life might create one inadvertently was funny. My husband Adam was finishing his PhD in Philosophy around the writing of the novel, and we share an interest in the paradoxes of time travel (among other paradoxes), which was another spur.

 

From the first attempted pages, the book took around fifteen months to write, but I had been writing character sketches of Marie and Jason for much longer than that. Then the editing and revising took another year or two. It’s hard to find the boundaries around that kind of timeline.

 

3) “The Amateurs” has been listed as part of Knopf New Face of Fiction program. How did the novel get chosen for that program?

 

I don’t know how that happened—but I am so thrilled to be on that list and to be publishing with Knopf.

 

4) Who are your favourite writers? What are you reading right now?

 

I love Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen, and I’m also very enthusiastic about Zadie Smith, Rachel Cusk, Heather O’Neill, and Elena Ferrante. Ottessa Mosfegh’s stories and her novel Eileen were some recent favorites. I’m currently reading Ruth Franklin’s biography of Shirley Jackson—it’s excellent—and I’m just starting Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.

 

5) Your website states you also write essays and short pieces of fiction. Do you find any differences between the two forms of writing? Is there one form you prefer over the other?

 

Yes, and I’ve also been recently trying to write poetry. Each form provides something different, though I have a lot of trouble knowing for myself what that difference is. My nonfiction tends to be memoir, and I like all my work to be exploratory and open-ended as I’m very uncomfortable with definitive statements, at least in my writing. I tend to prefer whatever I’ve been working on—right now, I prefer fiction and feel most comfortable within it—I like to create a voice and get to know a character.

 

6) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?

 

Yes—many new things, actually. Partly because I am very busy with young kids and too many responsibilities, and partly because my personality likes novelty, I’m always working on lots of projects at once. I’m several drafts into one new novel (a realist novel about commitment to marriage and to religious belief) and part way into a first draft of another; I’m working on a bunch of short stories; and I’ve been working on and researching a long nonfiction project to do with mental illness in my family.

 

7) You seem to be active on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. How do you like using those sites? Are you planning to use those applications to connect with fans of your writing?

 

Definitely. I’m on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and I’m trying to figure out how best to use them. I used to really love blogging, which I think led me to write more nonfiction, and I want to figure out how to enjoy social media that much.

 

8) Are you done any public readings of you work? If yes, is it something you enjoy to do? Are you planning a book tour with the release of “The Amateurs?”

 

I have done a few readings over the past few years, of stories and essays and parts of The Amateurs. I think it’s a skill I’m getting better at, especially with some practice I’ve had reading poetry aloud. I enjoy it and tend to like events—I like going to readings also. My tour will take me to Southern Ontario in May, to start with, with more events to follow.

 

9) Your biographies have you listed as having moved from Hamilton, Ontario to California. How do you like living there now? Do you get back to Canada much?

 

I do get back to Canada fairly frequently, both with and without my family. We moved because of my husband’s academic job, which we were extremely lucky to get, but I suffer from a lot of homesickness. I miss the changing seasons—even the grey skies of the endless Southern Ontario winters—and it was hard to leave friends and family behind, especially when our kids were so young. But we have made wonderful friends here, and pomegranate trees and blue skies can be nice. I was writing The Amateurs during the move—had finished the first part during my last summer in Hamilton and started the second part before we even had an internet connection here—and my mentor with the U of T, Charles Foran, joked with me that I was going through a kind of portal while I wrote my portal novel.

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Link to Liz Harmer’s website

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s website for “The Amateurs”