By Drew Williams
The Memory Artists by Jeffrey Moore (ISBN: 0312349254)
Okay, I'll make no bones about this one—no ifs, ands, or buts. This is definitely one of the most remarkable books I've read in years. Moore's prose is like liquid poetry, finding wonder in every surface it touches, every ideal it reflects, every notion, character, or flaw that it discovers. Without even seeming to think about it, he manages to vault over one of the most persistent problems in modern literature. You know when you're reading a book, and there are three or four characters, and you only ever really care about what happens to one or two, so you're always slogging through the other bits? Not here. Moore's narrative bounces off six different characters, each completely different, each unreliable in their own way, and yet a page into each chapter, we're finding the character currently reading more complex and compelling than the last.
The book itself concerns a young man named Noel Burun, afflicted with synesthesia—a mental disorder that not only confuses his senses (makes him see sounds as lashes of color, words as contorting shapes), but it also manages to give him a perfect memory. Yet it also alienates him socially; his only friend is Norval, a fellow patient in a mental study. That study is where all the characters radiate out from: all with different mental conditions, all related to memory. Norval is an inveterate pleasure seeker, seeing life through a kaleidoscope as he attempts to emulate Noel's synesthesia with a pharmacy's worth of illicit drugs. He's also attempting—for purely academic reasons, of course—to sleep his way through the alphabet, beginning with a woman with the letter 'A'—an Alice, an Allison, an Arlene—and on down to 'Z'. As the book begins, he's on 'S', which brings us to character three: Samira Darwish, a young graduate student at the same medical center where the others are studied. Then there's Jean-Jacques Yelle, a relentlessly upbeat, idiosyncratic inventor and collector—mentally incapable of feeling too stressed out; and also their doctor, the slightly sinister figure who frames the book's main conceit: namely, that it is written as non-fiction, by the doctor, trying to clear his name of something... well, I certainly won't spill it here.
But that brings us to the final character, the tragic beauty that puts the story in motion: Stella, Noel's mother, fading slowly into the wasteland of Alzheimer's, leaving Noel, with all his perfect memory, forced to watch hers vanish. This pain leads him to a decision that, once again, I would never spoil here. I'll only say that, as it spreads and slowly entangles all of his friends, the slow shifting of tone in the book is one of the most well-balanced techniques I've ever read.
And that's what finally makes The Memory Artists such a great read. It's partially the glowing, twining prose, yes, and partially the deft expression of synesthesia itself; it's partially the painful, bitter sorrow of watching Stella fade into Alzheimer's, and partially the sinister tone of the doctor's footnotes, trying to discredit the narrative even as we read it. But mostly, it's how all six characters interact, and view the world—like spokes from a wheel or forks in a road, what makes them different is what makes them compelling, because they're all eventually searching for the same thing.
It really is a brilliant book.
© Little Professor Books, 2006.