November 8, 2010 by Reader's Connection
Real, diagnosable amnesia–people getting knocked on the head and forgetting their names–is mostly just a rumor in the world. It’s a rare condition, and usually a brief one. In books and movies, though, versions of amnesia lurk everywhere . . . So writes Jonathan Lethem (who will be at Butler on November 15th) in his introduction to The Vintage Book of Amnesia, in which he as collected some unsettling tales and essays.
The stories here deal in a wide-ranging way with loss of identity, including memory. I should warn you that some of the pieces (Martin Amis, Thomas Palmer) are excerpts from novels that the library doesn’t own; so if you’re fascinated by them and want the stories filled out, you’ll have to do an interlibrary loan. The wonderful pieces by Shirley Jackson and Robert Sheckley, on the other hand, are here in their entirety, but reading them has nevertheless left me off-balance. I mean more than usual.
Sophie Kinsella’s novel Remember Me? is much more comfy. Londoner Lexi Smart wakes up after an auto accident and has forgotten the last three years of her life–during which she seems to have had her teeth fixed and her body toned up. And there’s Eric, her gorgeous, wealthy husband whom she doesn’t remember. And she has turned into a successful, hard-hitting boss at work. She marvels at what she calls her “dream life”.
If you’re not suffering from amnesia, yourself, and you don’t forget every novel you’ve ever read, you’ll guess that Lexi’s paradise has its problems. And even if you take her posh world at face value, you’ll probably raise your eyebrows when her dream husband invoices her (£3,200) for a coffee-table glass leopard that she accidentally breaks.
The book was a bit too reader-friendly for me–fiction about amnesia should be more troubling–but Kinsella has taken that old murder-mystery building block, the changed identity, and turned it around. Instead of having a private eye trying to figure who has changed into whom, you have Lexi trying to figure out why she has changed so much during those missing years and whether the transformation has really worked.
Our catalog is suffering amnesia as to what Sarah Van Arsdale´s Toward Amnesia is supposed to look like, so I’ll tell you that the cover bears a black and white image of a woman’s body under water. No sunflowers here. Our narrator is a marine biologist who can’t bear the fact that her girl friend has left her. Unlike most of the characters in these fictions, she actually pursues amnesia: “And if I couldn´t bring myself to take the required number of pills, at least I could attempt the creation of someone else, someone who would never miss . . . Libby. Someone who had never known what I´d known with her.”
She drives from North Carolina to an island up near the Canadadian border, changes her name (in conversation, not legally), gets her splendid hair cut off, starts to write with her left hand, and gets a job cleaning sailboat hulls. She goes for ritual swims in a lake near her cabin, on the theory that the lakewater will somehow suck the memory out of her.
That plan is not without its scientific basis–see the chapter called “Diving”–and in any case I enjoyed the swim immensely. The forgotten dust jacket identifies Van Arsdale as a poet/science writer; and she does well with “the natural world” as an arena for the study of human traumas.
The Way Through Doors by Jesse Ball is a novel with amnesia. It can’t remember what’s going on inside itself.
A fellow sees a young woman be hit by a cab, and of course she loses her memory. He tries to help her remember her past by telling stories.
That is supposed to be what’s happening, but forget it. The point of view keeps shifting. The stories loop in and out of each other, and recurring characters discuss previous events that occurred in other wings of the story.
Now and then I feel I’m wasting my time, and wish I were reading something less airy, more substantial. But I’ve made it to paragraph 1055–there are paragraph numbers rather than page numbers–and some turns of the story have been intriguing. I especially enjoyed the curling touch which begins during paragraph 291.
Jonathan Lethem recommends Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled in the bibliography at the end of his amnesia anthology (“dreamlike and decorous . . . hugely encompassing and discursive . . . nearly impossible to describe or excerpt”), and I had just finished reading those words when I saw a hardbound copy on the for-sale rack in our lobby. How could I fail to insert my two dollars in the box?
But I agree with Lethem that the book is hard to describe, so let’s have Saint Augustine give it a try. Or rather, Garry Wills, in his introduction to Saint Augustine’s Memory, the second volume of his translation of Augustine’s Confessiones.
We meet not only ourselves but others in memory. In amnesiac stories, the person afflicted with memory loss does not know whether he or she is married, or to whom. Who the person’s parents might be, or children (if any), or partners, or foes–all those things are wiped out if the memory is gone . . . Community is built up on associations treasured in memory . . . Modern studies of criminal behavior show that social deviants often lack memories of supportive family or other groups. Unable to meet such friends in their memories of the past, they find it difficult or impossible to form friends in the present. Memory is our path to others.
Memory isn´t much of a path to anyone in The Unconsoled, which is narrated by Mr. Ryder, a renowned pianist who arrives in a European town and seems to be late for a slew of events that he doesn´t remember having agreed to attend. At times the reader is on hand as a gob of memory floats away from Ryder, and you want to shout, “Wait a minute! You’re leaving Boris back in the pastry shop!” On the other hand, Ryder has the paranormal ability to remember events he didn’t witness.
But the level of disorientation experienced by the reader goes beyond what I’m able to discuss here. Home, family, community memory, celebrity, culture and the whole idea of having a self are dealt with in a Halloween-haunted-house fashion. The book is troubling–which is a good thing, as I’ve indicated. And much of the time it’s also funny.
Whoa! I just brushed against my keyboard and everything disappeared. I mean everything on the monitor, not everything in the room. This software is prone to spasms of amnesia, but there’s a recall feature that some of the characters in these novels could use.
Anybody Out There? by Marian Keyes is one of her novels involving the Walsh sisters. I couldn’t get started, because it reminded me too much of Sophie Kinsella’s Remember Me? but the Keyes novel came out first, and I’m not accusing either author of pinching from the other. Ignore my reader’s block. The reviews in our catalog give this one three thumbs up.
The lovable Walsh family is back in Keyes’s newest endeavor, this time with Anna at center stage when she suffers serious injuries in a Manhattan taxi accident and ends up recuperating at home with her parents in Dublin, Ireland. But Anna has more to worry about: the escapades of her sister, Helen, a private eye working for Irish gangsters; her best friend and her sorry romances; her sister Rachel’s upcoming nuptials; and her mother’s obsession with a dog that is being trained to poop next to the mailbox. To boot, her husband, Aidan, back in New York, is not answering her emails and seems to have become a rather shadowy character. When Anna returns to Manhattan, her physical wounds finally healed up, life takes some shocking turns. Keyes has once again penned an intelligently written novel that is as warmly funny as her previous books but is ultimately much more heartbreaking. — Library Journal
We´re going for an upbeat finish, with the Johnny Mercer song, “I Remember You.” There are a number of versions on YouTube, and the Slim Whitman version was tempting; but the Frank Ifield hit carries the day.