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Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain
The Memory Artists

Montreal Mirror
October 14, 2004

Mind fields

Virtuoso wit and big-in-Europe Montrealer Jeffrey Moore gets more serious in The Memory Artists

by Juliet Waters


Last week, Jeffrey Moore launched his second novel, The Memory Artists, with a story about another reading. "It was an event organized by the French Ministère des Affaires culturelles in Paris," he recounted. "Before doing the reading I had asked for water, which they placed on a tray on the floor behind me. They then videotaped the reading and later replayed it on a silent loop during VIP cocktails. Unaccountably, or perhaps maliciously, the initial image got temporarily stuck in a freeze-frame so what we were subjected to seeing, repeatedly, was my posterior as I bent over to drink the water."

Why anyone would want to play a silent video of a writer so notoriously entertaining (The Hindustan Times once credited him with stealing an event from Salman Rushdie) is more of a mystery than why someone might want to make an ass of him. The point Moore wanted to make, however, and which he did by physically recreating the butt shot for his audience, is that "this is exactly the kind of highbrow humour you can expect from my book."

Fans of his first novel, Prisoner in a Red Rose Chain, which won the 2000 Commonwealth Award, will already expect Moore's trademark fusion of virtuoso wit and shameless lowbrow. But there aren't as many of these fans as there should be. His Pythonesque instincts (as in Monty, not lethal serpent) seem to have scored him many more readers in the U.K. and Europe than in Canada, or even Montreal, where he has lived for decades. In Italy, for instance, he apparently drew three times as many readers as fellow homeboy Yann Martel.

Perhaps this will change with his new book, which certainly takes a more serious tack than his first. The Memory Artists is inspired in part by Moore's own experiences caring for two parents with Alzheimer's. Noel Burun, the main character, is a young hero fabulously tortured by a strange neurological condition. Not only does he have a relentlessly exact memory, but he is also constantly bewildered by conversation, which appears to him as a vibrant explosion of colour. On one level his life is an extended acid trip. But on another, it's crawling with tragic irony, as his mother is in the early stages of memory loss.

Stella Burun's journal is a painful record of her gradual mental disintegration. It is sad and compelling stuff, but when Moore read from it last week, he still managed to spark a few laughs. There was one when Stella compared the initial feeling of losing her memory to what it was like to live in Canada around the time that it suddenly switched to metric. Another laugh came after Moore trailed off, holding the book up so the audience could see that the typeface was fading as Stella's typewriter ribbon runs out of ink. "As you can see, this represents both her fading memory, and an over-obvious attempt at symbolism."

Not so obvious, perhaps, given the rave reviews The Memory Artists has received in the U.K. in such lofty publications as The Times Literary Supplement and The Lancet, Britain's foremost medical journal. He can probably expect more accolades, but The Lancet may be the one that will mean the most to him. Moore's father, a drug salesman and bacteriologist, was not always certain about the wisdom of his decision to become a writer. "He would have been absolutely thrilled by that review," Moore confided earlier, the day of the reading.

© Montreal Mirror (2004)