Drawn from Memory

The Memory Artists

By Andrew Steinmetz

Published on October 1, 2004

The Memory Artists
Jeffrey Moore

Viking Canada
$34
cloth
352pp
0-670-04520-9

The Memory Artists is a tragicomedy with a flip postmodern heart. Set in contemporary Montreal, largely in the neighbouring districts of Outremont and Mile End, Jeffrey Moore’s eagerly anticipated second novel deals with memory and its relationship to creativity. It also explores memory’s mitigating role as kingmaker of baseline and altered states of consciousness.

Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, is the mother of the nine Muses. But memory can be a curse. As Moore points out, often people will see a psychiatrist because they want to forget things but can’t. Then there is memory loss, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Stella Burun, a former history teacher, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Her son Noel is no ordinary wit, and has long lived with a double-barrelled diagnosis of hypermnesia (he remembers absolutely everything) and synaesthesia, by which sound triggers the perception of vivid colours.

Noel is able to memorize whole chunks of texts, including seemingly the entirety of The Arabian Nights. He even remembers his moment of birth. Yet certain human voices cram his head with fuzz and colour his brainwaves.

Depending on the circumstances, he can remember words and conversations verbatim, if not their meaning. Noel’s mindlife, one imagines, must in some way resemble Noam Chomsky’s famous example of how a sentence – “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” – can be both grammatical and meaningless.

The novel pivots on Noel’s quest to fabricate a memory pill. Noel’s father Henry, now years dead by suicide, was a brilliant neuropharmacologist. Noel will enlist his father’s laboratory notebooks, as well as some help from his fellow memory artists. A group of thirty-somethings, all of whom are fit for an Oliver Sacks case study, they join Noel in his search for the prime element, an alchemical cure-all known as alkahest.

Dr Emile Vorta, the novel’s lynchpin, is a Faustian neuropsychologist involved with each of the memory artists. Norval Xavier Blaquière is under study for drug-induced synaesthesia. Samira Darwish is the victim of the date rape drug GHB and suffers from short-term amnesia. She is also trying to escape her past as an actress. Finally, J.J. Yelle’s differential diagnosis is ‘nostalgesis/creativity – TMS induced.’ TMS stands for Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation.

Dr Vorta provides the novel’s foreword. He alludes to a professional writer/translator whom he has engaged to tell “a true story.” Later on this ghostwriter, or “as-told-to-ist,” is revealed by Noel to go by the name “Geoff something.” (Moore, by the way, is a translator and writer whose first name is Jeffrey.)

The method of storytelling chosen by this “Geoff something” is a combination of dramatic reconstructions with interviews, laboratory notes, and diary entries. Newspaper clippings are pasted in scrapbook fashion, to provide a documentary-type conclusion. Finally, the endnotes, provided by Vorta, pose as the apparatus of a rigorous scientific investigator. They provide a running commentary on the novel’s corpus, a set of informative and entertaining rejoinders replete with historical, scientific, and literary references.

Usefully for both physician and readers, Dr Vorta’s patients are compliant when asked to keep a record of their days. Their diary entries form a large chunk of the novel. Through the diaries one hopes to retrieve some insight into the memory artists’ individual states of consciousness. But it doesn’t really happen. Moore never quite generates a private grammar for his characters, one powerful enough to transform their signs and symptoms into a point of view. Instead of fine-tuning the language, Moore seems fixed on superficial experiments with the font and typesetting of their private journals. For example, as Stella succumbs to increasingly severe cognitive deficits, the typeset of her diary begins to fade. What are we to learn from this? As her world fades, so does our page. When Stella enters complete darkness, we arrive at the tabula rasa of a blank page. Genius or gimmick?

It’s in the third-person dramatic reconstructions that Moore the satirist really takes full charge of The Memory Artists. Take the creation of Norval Xavier Blaquière. Norval is a sexual conquistador, a “sexistentialist.” A Frenchman, he is a successful writer and actor now living in Montreal. Moore has him speaking straight from the spleen, with a “superiority complex,” like a “depraved English viscount.”

Norval is the proud genius of the Alpha Bet, a performance art piece for which he has received a federal government subsidy. The idea is to seduce 26 women in alphabetical order on the basis of their first names, and, finally, to commit suicide. Through Norval, Moore launches into social criticism, nailing among other things the subsidized artist class he calls the “Welfartists,” and applying Norval’s acid tongue to scientific research ethics and modern manners.

Norval envies Noel’s diagnosis, getting his kicks from asking Noel to recite esoteric texts from memory. But Norval also betrays a soft spot for the kinder, gentler Noel. After meeting at the Rialto Theatre, they make the discovery that they are each other’s physical double.

When Noel moves back in with his sick mother, it’s not long before all the memory artists, Norval included, show up and seek lodging in the Outremont mansion. What ensues is essentially a romantic comedy – a slumber party of sorts. Noel and company, all of whom share the same doctor, form a healing circle, treating themselves to all-night sessions of group therapy. But the memory artists are also serious about helping Stella.

Noel works himself ragged day and night, down in his father’s secret chemical laboratory, trying to discover the prime element. Searching for clues, he ransacks Henry Burun’s old notebooks, and applies formulae based on quasi-cabalistic interpretations of The Arabian Nights.

Yelle comes on board with his own herbal concoctions, while Samira sets up a reality board and begins some art therapy lessons with Stella. For his part, Norval shows up at the house and discloses that his own private quest, his Alpha Bet, is stalled at the letter S. Will Samira, or will Noel’s mother, Stella, be his next victim?

In his foreword, Dr Vorta describes his ensemble of memory artists as “the pharmacological equivalent of throwing five volatile compounds into a beaker and coming up with a miracle drug.”

That’s more or less what Moore has done in this ingenious novel.

A conversation with Jeffrey Moore.

After the attention you received for winning the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2000, was it difficult to sit down and write a follow-up?

Difficult is too feeble a word. Hellish is more like it. Julian Barnes, to drop a name, once told me that the worse thing that could happen to a first-time novelist was to win a major prize. Not only because of the increased pressure and expectations, but because critics would be sharpening their hatchets. But in my case things were made worse by the theme I chose for the second novel – memory. Because it dragged me back into a painful period, the 1990s, when I was confronted with the heartbreaking spectacle of my parents’ battles with memory loss. Battles they ended up losing.

Was that the initial spark that made you write The Memory Artists?

Writing about memory, or neurological meltdowns, was a way of dealing with the whole mess – the proverbial catharsis, I suppose. But things didn’t really begin to cohere or crystallize until I learned about hypermnesia and the case of a Russian named Solomon Shereshevski who had this abnormally vivid visual memory, along with a high degree of synaesthesia, or coloured hearing. He described Sergei Eisenstein’s voice as an “orange flame with protruding fibres.” So it was at that point that I got the idea for Noel, a synaesthete with a troublingly exact memory, as a foil to his mother Stella, the other main character who had a faltering memory.

The novel is funny, sometimes caustic, other times poignant, but never one thing for any amount of time. Does this make it a tragicomedy?

It makes it a mishmash, a dog’s breakfast – perhaps a transcranial image of my muddled brain. Now that I think of it, though, a lot of tragicomedies are wild hybrids, Shakespeare’s problem plays among them, and I suppose it’s a form that’s always attracted me. Dark comedies can be marvellously complex and poignant, and poignancy within comedy can make a potent brew. Comedy becomes sharper when juxtaposed with tragedy. Tragedy becomes more unbearable when comedy precedes it, as in certain Woody Allen films, or in Four Weddings and a Funeral, where romantic farce and buffoonery precede that tearful eulogy, with those agonizingly beautiful lines from Auden. Norval Xavier Blaquière is a wonderful creation who literally performs his part in the novel. Is Norval a tip of the hat to Richard E. Grant’s portrayal of a down-and-out actor in Withnail and I, a film that gets mentioned in the novel?

Speaking of dark and poignant comedies. A good observation. That film is one of my favourites, and Norval may well have been inspired by Withnail. Not matched, unfortunately, but inspired by. He’s a character who, as you say, performs his lines, in an aphoristic, Wildean way that sounds more like he’s reciting a memorized text. Both characters are diabolically clever as well, and utterly disdainful of those who aren’t up to their level. Yet despite being scoundrels, both are ultimately tragic figures, for whom the audience will feel a certain amount of compassion. At least I hope they will in Norval’s case.

Dr Émile Vorta is a fictional student of Dr Wilder Penfield. Is the reference born of the fact that Penfield worked in Montreal, where your novel is set, or was there anything specific about Penfield’s research and/or persona that led you to make this allusion?

I used to live on avenue Docteur-Penfield, but that’s not the reason I refer to him. He was once called “the greatest living Canadian” even though he was born and educated in the U.S., but that’s not the reason either. No, the reference stems from Penfield’s groundbreaking memory experiments. He discovered – accidentally, I think – that by stimulating the temporal lobes he could trigger memories involving sound, movement, and colour that were much more vivid than normal memory, and often about things unremembered under normal circumstances. In other words, he made his patients relive the past as if it were the present. “Proust on the operating table, and electrical recherche du temps perdu,” is how it’s described in the novel. Patients were shocked, pardon the pun, to re-experience long-forgotten conversations, nursery rhymes, a view from a childhood window. This is similar to what happen to my main character, Noel Burun, who has extraordinarily vivid and persistent recollections, linked to his synaesthesia, of childhood events and childhood books in particular.

The quest for a “memory pill” leads Noel Burun and his friends to experiment with neuropharmacology, alchemy, herbal remedies, and complementary medicine. Do you suppose that complementary medicine is a kind of modern-day alchemy, symbolic of the wish to combine the creative energies of both science and art into something that transcends the sum of its parts?

The alchemists were searching for something called the alkahest, a cure-all that would involve, as you suggest, a kind of marriage between art and science. This union is certainly something to be wished for, and it’s one of the themes of The Memory Artists. Most of the world’s great scientists, from Pythagoras to Einstein, would not have made their leaps without inveterately artistic, or imaginative, or heretical thought patterns. But as for today’s complementary medicine, it can hardly be considered an exemplar of this art-science synergy. Big Pharma’s bad, but the “wellness” industry is worse – unregulated and dishonest, untested and unreliable. In most cases it’s little more than a new religion, a new opiate for the masses. mRb

Andrew Steinmetz is Vehicule's Fiction Editor and a poet.

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