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A book to remember

Amnesia at center of gripping novel

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Total amnesia (otherwise known as "global amnesia") is something that occurs rarely in life and routinely in movies and books. Have you ever known someone to experience a total wipeout of memory, usually as the result of physical -- or emotional -- trauma? My guess would be no.

Gregory Peck, however, experienced it twice: in Alfred Hitchcock's Dali-esque melodrama Spellbound, and then 20 years later in the less memorable Mirage.

More recently, Memento and The Bourne Identity have portrayed amnesia as an affliction with sinister implications. The heroes of those movies -- tormented, insomniac -- functioned much like detectives, doggedly pursuing the loose ends of their own lives. This came at a terrible price. As each shard of memory was recovered and restored to its proper place in the puzzle, an insidious conspiracy was slowly revealed. Ultimately, the act of violence that precipitated the amnesia threatened to strike again, bringing things full-circle.

In the case of Memento and the various Bourne pictures, the "amnesiac detectives" were able to defend themselves just fine, with an arsenal of physical and mental skills.

In the British author Tom McCarthy's debut novel Remainder, the subject of amnesia is handled in a refreshingly original way, without the presence of hit men, femme fatales or international syndicates. Those types of things are not even missed -- losing one's memory is traumatic enough, without all the cloak-and-dagger.

The unnamed narrator, whose obsessive, fevered mind we are trapped in for 308 pages, is amnesiac from the first sentence:

"About the accident itself I can say very little. Almost nothing. It involved something falling from the sky. Technology. Parts, bits. That's it, really: all I can divulge."

A few pages later, we learn "the last clear memory I have is of being buffeted by wind twenty or so minutes before I was hit."

Tantalizing as these bits and pieces of memory are, they don't add up to very much. It appears likely, though, that someone -- or something -- is guilty of having caused catastrophic injury. But who? And why?

Within days of release from the hospital, the narrator is transformed (literally overnight) into an instant millionaire. The "party responsible" has paid out an enormous sum -- with a caveat. The victim must remain silent about the nature of the accident, as well as promise not to pursue legal recourse (requiring little effort on his part, as he has no memory of what occurred).

It's at this point in the narrative that Remainder bears resemblance to any number of "amnesiac thrillers" (the 1966 film Mister Buddwing being a favorite of mine, in which James Garner awakens in Central Park with a bruised body and vacant mind). Tom McCarthy, however, has other things in mind -- Robert Ludlum he's not.

"After the accident I forgot everything. It was as though my memories were pigeons and the accident a big noise that had scared them off. They fluttered back eventually -- but when they did, their hierarchy had changed."

One night at a party, a crack in the bathroom wall inexplicably draws his attention. The particular location of the crack -- its shape, width and length -- remind him of something. Within minutes, the surrounding walls, the color of the wall paint, the assorted contents contained within, all take on strange and thrilling significance.

To Remainder's narrator, this crack in the wall does not signify a disintegrating mind, or the onset of a nightmarish episode (as it did so memorably in Roman Polanski's terrifying film Repulsion). Rather, it presents a link to the "phantom life" lived before the accident, if not the key to breaking through the amnesia.

Enabled by his sudden wealth, he sets into motion an obsessive plan to reclaim his missing life. He locates and purchases an old building resembling the one in his dreams. He then hires performers to portray the faces and figures that have begun emerging from his amnesia, inserting them (like dolls) in various apartments of the building. Referred to as "re-enactors," they are trained to perform -- in continuous loops -- specific movements, gestures and routines. There is the old lady in the apartment below, constantly frying liver. The pianist upstairs who never seems to master a particularly vexing passage of music. The "motorbike enthusiast," constantly assembling and disassembling his vehicle in the courtyard below.

The urge to reconstruct reality according to one's memories or dreams (at whatever the personal cost) brings to mind Vertigo. And like Hitchcock's film, Remainder eventually veers into uncharted, surreal territory. The quest to recover "missing time" gets sidetracked in totally bizarre ways.

No longer content with "reenacting" his own past, the narrator sets out to painstakingly reenact (or reproduce) events from other people's lives. Impatient with the merely mundane, he turns his attention toward scenes of past violence: car crashes, holdups, murder scenes. Preoccupied with physical detail (getting the exact look and texture just right on such things as tire skids and blood spatter), his "reenactments" begin to resemble some kind of fetishized performance art. When he decides to reenact a bank robbery, unintended -- and hilariously disastrous -- consequences occur. Amnesia becomes the least of his worries ...

Tom McCarthy's bio describes him as "the General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society, a semi-fictitious avant-garde network." Whatever that means is anyone's guess, but Remainder is proof that he is also an original new voice in contemporary fiction.

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