Monday, September 13, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 222 (9/13) -- Memory by Donald E. Westlake

Death is fond of cheap irony, all too often. And here's another example -- probably the last book from one of the greatest mystery writers of the 20th century, Donald E. Westlake, is a buried and essentially forgotten manuscript from early in his career...called Memory.

I haven't seen anything dating Memory more precisely than "the '60s," but my assumption -- based on very little other than reading a lot of Westlake books -- is that it's probably from the latter end of that decade, given its size and ambition. Toward the end of that decade, Westlake was feeling cramped by some of the writing he was doing, and trying to stretch out with books like Adios Scheherazade and Up Your Banners under his own name (both published in 1969) and odder things like Comfort Station (as by J. Morgan Cunningham, in 1970). On the other hand, Memory, in its pulpy details, stripped-down action, and characters with severely limited scope for thought and reaction, feels more like a product of the '50s (or very early '60s) than later.

Someone knows the answer to that question -- probably several someones -- but it's a distraction from the real issue: is Memory any good? And that's a harder one to answer. Memory is a confined, claustrophobic book, a work of almost Beckettian high modernism written in a David Goodis idiom; the matter and the style have affinities, but they often work against each other, each limiting the book in a different, dissonant way.

Memory opens like a noir novel: Paul Cole, a medium-successful actor, is on tour with a Broadway show, somewhere in America. He's screwing another man's wife when that man barges in and hits Paul in the head with a chair. Paul wakes up, two days later, in a hospital, with a concussion and subsequent mixed anterograde and retrograde amnesia [1]. And then the reader turns to the second page.

From there on, Memory trudges forward, as Paul tries to reconstruct his life based on his memory at the moment -- and then tries again, based on a slightly different set of memories later -- and then again -- and again. His first instinct is to get back to New York where he lived -- he knows, instinctively, that if he gets back to the place he belongs, then his memory will return, and he can go back to his old life. But the local police are less than helpful to a itinerant wife-stealer, and Paul finds himself broke and only slightly closer to New York.

In a book written later, or by a more instinctively "literary" writer, the episodic structure of Memory would have been broken more cleanly into sections, but Westlake writes it like a pulp novelist: one chapter after another, one event running into the next. Paul's aims stay the same, as far as he knows -- but, then, Memory is all about the things Paul Cole forgets and can never retrieve.

And so Memory is a bleak book: bleak partially in the way of noir, where every hand is turned against the hero (or, if not actively turned against him, at least not ready to help him in a way he can accept, and not able to do him a kindness without an ulterior motive). And bleak partially from that modernist streak, which makes Paul into a man who doesn't know who he is, and so can never find a comfortable place to settle or stop. But the two kinds of bleakness are separate: the noir bleakness must be based on a moral code, and so Paul is punished for debauching another man's wife. But he forgets that very quickly, as Memory settles into the modernist bleakness, in which he's punished for simply existing without a place, for being a man who doesn't know who he is. Memory also extends its conceit too far, perhaps -- this is a 366-page novel primarily about a man who can't remember things, told in terse but inescapably repetitive prose.

Westlake wrote many better books than Memory -- Humans, Smoke, several of the Dortmunder books, several of the Richard Stark novels -- and even wrote one as bleak but substantially more unified, The Ax. And he'd probably wince that Memory, something he abandoned forty years ago, will be the last new book to bear his name. But it's an interesting piece of his literary history, a missing link between his early pulp novels like The Mercenaries and Killy and those later dark books like The Ax and Kahawa. I wouldn't recommend it to a reader who wasn't already a Westlake fan, or a connoisseur of noir, but it has definite attractions to those who can bring their prior knowledge and memories to bear on it. And that, perhaps, is the final irony of Paul Cole's life and Donald Westlake's novel.

[1] This is a better diagnosis than Paul ever gets, but he is the protagonist of a noir novel, and I'm a man fifty years later with access to Wikipedia.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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