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Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain
The Memory Artists

The Link
October 12, 2004

Keeping memories alive

A man who can never forget tries to cure his mother's Alzheimer's in The Memory Artists.

by Chantal Basch-Tetreault

The Memory Artists
By Jeffrey Moore
Penguin 2004
$35.00, hardcover, 304 pp.

For 33-year-old Noel Burun, even the simplest of conversations is an exhausting experience, where key words and tones of voice set off a chain reaction of dizzying sights, sounds, colours and quotes years old. Heir to a condition affecting one in twenty thousand, Noel has synaesthesia–he can forget almost nothing.

In contrast, Noel's mother Stella, age 56, has Alzheimer's disease and is sinking fast. Once a graceful, respected historian and CEGEP teacher, she feels her memories fading into fog until even her own son becomes a stranger. Baffled and overwhelmed at being his mother's caretaker, Noel is saved by a series of random encounters that throws several friends and one love interest his way.

They include Norval Xavier Blaquière, Noel's bitter yet irresistible lookalike alter ego and best friend, on a quest to sleep with 26 women in the alphabetical order of their first names: Samira Darwish, a beautiful chemistry student with a mysterious past, who refuses to become Norval's next journal entry and Jean-Jacques (J.J.) Yelle, a bear-like man with a puppyish disposition and a penchant for puns and home-made hallucinogens. All patients of Dr. Émile Vorta, Noel's slightly sinister Swiss neuropsychologist and father figure, they form an unlikely crew living and working for an Alzheimer's cure in Stella's Mile End apartment. The results are twisted, tragicomic and extremely entertaining.

Since the story in The Memory Artists is told from many different perspectives, including private journal entries written by the main characters and fictional newspaper articles, following the narrative gets tricky at times. This is especially true at the beginning when the protagonists are still making themselves known, but author Jeffrey Moore skillfully holds the story together.

In fact, the only real weakness in The Memory Artists is the lack of strong female characters. True, both Stella–at least before her dementia–and Samira are intelligent, respected and, yes, attractive women, yet they are also both in need of saving. And, along with more minor female characters in the book, their main status is as love interests, mothers, caretakers or all three. On the other hand, given Noel's blundering, Norval's cynicism and Dr. Vorta's creative use of ethics, perhaps the men aren't all that much more kindly represented.

This criticism aside, The Memory Artists is one of those few novels that can pack in humour, pathos, satire, love, friendship, hope and cynicism all within one volume. Stella's frustration at losing her sense of self and Noel's helplessness are chronicled in heartbreaking detail. Additional information on synaesthesia, Alzheimer's, chemistry, poetry and other bits of trivia are included throughout and compiled in a footnote section in the back, which makes for an interesting science and literature lesson. Montreal readers will further appreciate the references to local institutions such as the Hell's Angels, the CBC, CEGEPs and Canadian newspapers–including The Link.

Also, Moore's lack of political correctness, especially in Norval's case, is refreshing. Who could put down a book with a character who says of the Saudi Arabian soccer team, "The Saudis couldn't score in a brothel," and describes his alphabetical conquests in the following manner: "N – Niagara ... One of those salon-tanned women who try to look jet-setting and sexy with a pumpkin-coloured face..."?

Like Life of Pi, The Memory Artists is one of those tales too fantastic to be true, yet so convincingly told that we can almost believe it. By turns puzzling, heartbreaking and laugh-out-loud funny, Jeffrey Moore's witty prose will leave the reader out of breath at the end, wondering what the hell just happened.