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Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain
The Memory Artists

Times Literary Supplement
17 September 2004

How to forget
by Alan White

Jeffrey Moore
The Memory Artists
320 pp. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99
0 297 60798 7

Jeffrey Moore's second novel is a model of inventiveness. The tale is apparently laid down by a ghost writer working for the publishing house of Dr Émile Vorta, a neuro-pyschologist at the University of Quebec. Vorta's introduction assures us that he has not altered the diary extracts, "dramatic reconstructions" (third-person narrative) and laboratory notes, but he stalks the text through its footnotes, like Kinbote in Nabokov's Pale Fire. We see early on that Vorta is, among other things, a racist and a philanderer, but he may be something altogether more sinister.

Vorta has commissioned the writer to "set straight" the story of his patient Noel Burun, who is a synaesthete. He perceives sounds and words as shapes and colours, and his memory is unerringly accurate. All the other characters in the story are imprisoned by their memories. Noel's mother, Stella, is sinking into Alzheimer's disease. He sets out to find a cure for her, with help of his friends from Vorta's clinic: JJ, who is trapped in his childhood (nostalgesis), Samira, who is trying to forget her life as an actress, and Norval, an English lecturer whose drug-taking and sexually dissolute life mask a secret from his past.

Parts of the novel are very moving. The excerpts from Stella's and Noel's diaries, as Alzheimer's takes its hold, and the depictions of Stella's condition, show how the disease kills two people. Most upsetting are the images of Noel trying to remind his mother of happier times, and pretending to those around him that all is well. However, there is humour in the insecure boastfulness of Vorta's footnotes, and in the character clashes between the licentious Norval's erudite wit and JJ's childish one-liners. The portraits of synaesthesia and Norval's Byronic pretensions allow Moore to indulge in a bit of literary playfulness–the word "Amaranth" sets the colours of Noel's mind moving from Keats to Aesop to Don Quixote, then to Pinocchio and finally the Arabian Nights.

But this witty referencing shows up a flaw in The Memory Artists. "Post-modern narrative is not my 'bag'", proclaims Vorta in his introduction–a sure sign that this is exactly what we are dealing with. The thrust of the plot covers the ground between art and science, as Noel seeks to find a cure for his mother. But, as in much postmodern fiction, experimentation clouds the emotional development of the characters. As Noel becomes withdrawn and engrossed in his experiments, so Jeffrey Moore allows his "chemical magic" to take precedence over human relationships. This is a weakness, because he shows great skill in his depictions of people's feelings. The decadent affectations of Norval, the immaturity of JJ and the feminine insecurities of Samira are all drawn with elegance, and the protracted ending glosses over the progress of their emotional life.

© TLS (2004)