The Memory Artists
St. Martin's Griffin, paper, $13.95
If hypermnesia and synesthesia sound like an inscrutable subject for a work of fiction, fear not. It's a clever way for this Canadian novelist to take a fresh look at two familiar themes: memory and identity. The former term means near-perfect memory, the latter is when sounds, letters or numbers are translated into bursts of color. Noel Burun suffers from (or is blessed with) both. Nabokov and other geniuses have had synesthesia, in varying degrees. For Noel, who was accepted to M.I.T. and who may be a descendant of Lord Byron, synesthesia leaves him out-of-it — it is "like nodding off on heroin" — and a social misfit. Yet "he doesn't forget a ... thing. He's like Proust, like Proust squared."
At the same time, his mother is in the early stages of Alzheimer's; she's losing her memory and her very self. Noel believes there's nothing inevitable about his mother's condition and declares, "with my memory, I'll restore hers ... I will save her." And so he sets out, with the help of a band of new friends, each escaping a previous identity, to do just that. The characters are well meaning, generous and sweet — even, in his own way, the brilliant, misanthropic (and hilarious) ladies' man, Norval, described as a "sexistentialist." Among his many bilious aphorisms: "Sweeping statements are the only kind worth listening to. Balanced opinions are for bores and third-rate minds." This is a rich novel, erudite and funny, as much about brain chemistry, the wellness industry and poetry as it is about memory. Rich, but some parts feel too much like a situation comedy, and there are too many gimmicks — different fonts, illustrations, news clippings, footnotes. Yet "The Memory Artists" is a pleasure to read; it's strangely uplifting to spend time with these flawed but humane characters.
© New York Times, 2006