The Memory Artists

by Jeffrey Moore
ISBN: 0670045209

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A Review of: The Memory Artists
by Paul Keen

Memory, both as a promise and a curse, is one of the great mysteries of our existence-a way of keeping faith with all we cherish, or where we forget, the worst betrayal. Or, more darkly, it haunts us in the endless return of unassimilable trauma. It is sometimes hard to know the difference. Je me souviens, license plates remind us. Lest we forget, we repeat like a mantra on Remembrance Day. Not just particular memories but the idea of memory itself offers us some of our most profound cultural coordinates. But memory can never be fully adequate either. In the nineteenth century, Charles Babbage fantasized about a "calculating system" so perfect that it would retain forever the details, not just of "all that man has ever said or woman whispered," but even of "the track of every canoe, of every vessel which has yet disturbed the surface of the ocean." Today we buy memory for our computers.
Jeffrey Moore's novel, The Memory Artists, approaches these issues by way of a protagonist and his mother who wrestle with the curse of remembering too much or too little, respectively. Noel Barun suffers from synaesthesia, a disease which affords him a perfect memory, but at a price. Impressions are so acutely registered that they become debilitating. His mind buckles under their force like "a mad librarian's slide show." He spends his days caring for his mother, once a savvy history professor (the discipline most explicitly committed to acts of public and private remembering) but now afflicted with Alzheimer's. The pathos of her situation is registered most acutely in a section written as her diary, where she wrestles with the darkness into which she is falling. It has a jagged and disturbing power that makes Ronald Reagan's announcement that he had begun a journey which would carry him into the sunset of his life seem like the euphemism it was doubtlessly intended to be.
Theirs is not a happy lot. Noel and his mother live alone in a large house in Montreal, bought in a distant past before their money ran out. Noel's father, a pharmaceutical researcher turned drug-rep (an escape from the bad science of corporate imperatives), but really a renaissance man given to waxing lyrical about the connections between science and poetry, committed suicide in the almost equally distant past by driving his Pontiac into a water filled quarry south of Lake Placid while on a sales trip. Like his father, Noel is a latter-day man of feeling, disabled by an acute sensitivity and honesty too great for the barbarities and hypocrisies of an uncaring world.
If all of this sounds desperately bleak, Moore's triumph is that he has not written a depressing book. On the contrary, much of the novel involves the drug-related goings-on of Noel and his three closest (and only) friends. At times the four risk collapsing into the cartoon reductionism of stock characters. Norval, Noel's look-alike and alter-ego, is the sensitive man as posturing cynic, a kind of Byron meets Duddy Kravitz. He is a serial misogynist (three quarters of the way to winning a bet by sleeping his way disdainfully through an alphabet of women's first names), but, we are asked to believe, his misogyny is part of a more general and understandable contempt for the banality and hypocrisies of a philistine world. In some ways, Norval is "fogeyish," Noel says of his tortured alter ego. "He can't stand the new generation-their consumer products and diction and garish clothes and brand names. But he hates the older generations too, the Establishment, especially law firms and drug companies." Noel is the sensitive soul turned basket case; Norval, the sensitive soul taking cover in ruthless nihilism. Their friend J. J. on the other hand, is the loveable dufus. Plump, freckled and red haired, he is incurably optimistic, eternally jolly, and given to reciting an endless stream of bad jokes. "What dog loves to take baths? A shampoodle." "Why did the poor dog chase his own tail? He was trying to make both ends meet." "Which animal keeps the best time?" "A watchdog." Or there are his cleverly butchered sayings: "I have to shake a tower . . .. . fake a moan call . . . . Time wounds all heels." If J. J.'s is the delicate but uncompromising trick of banality raised to an art form, a one-man version of Wayne's World in Montreal, then Samira, the fourth member of the ensemble, is everyone's girl friend and-and they all speculate about each other-potential girlfriend, well adjusted, decent, and, of course, attractive. The action heats up as each of them, one after another, turn up on Noel's doorstep needing a place to live. As they congregate there in the large once lonely house, caring for Noel's mother becomes a kind of group project.
The dialogue can sometimes be a bit stilted, more like a carefully scripted version of how we might all want to talk rather than what most of us actually manage. The effect is a bit like Archie characters engaged in Socratic dialogue. Asked by Samira about his uncanny physical resemblance to Noel,

Norval sighed. "So we've been told. Which may be one of the reasons we clicked. The doppelgnger phenomenon, the search for the invisible twin, the mystification of narcissism . . ."
Why does he speak like he's lecturing? Samira wondered. "And the presage of imminent death?" And why am I sounding like the brown-nosed student?
"That too. Like matter and its double, anti-matter. You shake hands and you're annihilated."
Samira smiled, then thought of a novel she'd been forced to read at school, and a line in an essay that got a check in the margin. "Is your friendship like the one between Max and Emil in Hesse's Demian? A bond that frees a person from other bonds and leads into a new dimension?"

The book is filled with similar passages of dialogue, like a novel full of characters remembering old essays where they'd been given checks in the margin. If this gives it something of an experimental feel, the effect is amplified by the novel's various formal innovations. Whole sections are comprised of newspaper clippings-one or two per page-or, where they are from a character's diary, in a font that replicates handwriting. In the most memorable example, Noel's mother's diary is written on a printer whose ink cartridge is almost empty. The chapter grows steadily fainter as it nears its end, an uncanny reminder of her confrontation with the worsening effects of Alzheimer's.
Most intriguing of all, perhaps, is the murky figure of Dr. mile Vorta, an internationally renowned neurolopsychologist in the Department of Experimental Psychology at Universit de Qubec. Though he never plays a major role in his own right, Vorta is part of virtually every plot line in the novel. He has been honoured for his research and accused of various forms of malpractice, intellectual theft, and even criminal conduct. He is Noel's doctor and possibly Noel's mother's former lover (and if this is true, then perhaps the reason for Noel's father's suicide), and the unifying force who has brought the characters, all of whom are involved in his research on memory, together. Most serious of all, he has been implicated on video and through his DNA in a case of sexual assault. Fortunately, the novel never discloses how many of the allegations which dog Vorta are true. But what clearly is true is that, on a certain level, this is Vorta's novel. The text is bookended by a Preface by Vorta explaining that he is releasing this document, even though he often appears in a negative light, in the interests of research, and a long series of end notes written in a comically indignant and overly professionalized tone in which he responds to the various allegations made against him or offers his gloss on different aspects of it.
The innovative spirit of these structural experiments extends to the novel's treatment of its two main themes. The Memory Artists, like Noel's own life, exemplifies his father's advice about the importance of combining poetry and chemistry. Like a geeky Montreal version of Victor Frankenstein, Noel works fiendishly away in his basement laboratory, searching for a new drug that can reverse his mother's worsening condition. When not helping Noel, J. J. works just as hard tending to his friends' recreational pharmaceutical needs-a pursuit which seems to have earned him the unwanted attention of local bank gangs. It may be the characters' sexual frustration which pervades the book (including Norval, whose frequent sexual dalliances only seem to intensify his annoyance with it all) but the novel is equally awash in poetry and literariness generally. Dazzlingly learned references to chemical equations are matched by repeated allusions to Proust, Joyce, Blake, Rossetti, more Blake, Rousseau, and a syllabus-length list of others. Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Nabokov all suffered from synaesthasia. And if Norval is Byronic, Noel turns out to be an actual descendent of Byron. At times the literariness gets a bit top heavy, as though sections of the novel had been written between grad seminars. Names are invoked rather than being conjured. The effect is a bit like being knocked on the head by a great Writers Anthology. "Must you always talk in aphorisms and faux profundities?'" Samira asks Norval at one point. "Who are you trying to be? La Rochefoucauld?'" It's hard to say whether the comment is intended to register as self-irony or not. The creative process behind the novel sometimes feels a bit like Noel's home-made experiments in his basement laboratory, trying things out as he goes. But like Noel's concoctions, the results of Moore's novelistic experiments are the more interesting for being unpredictable.

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