In re­mem­brance of things present

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Sunil Badami

‘ FOR­GET­TING,’’ the great In­dian writer R. K. Narayan said, ‘‘ is a boon to be cher­ished.’’ Any of us kept up at night by the re­grets or re­sent­ments that pile up in any half-ex­am­ined life might agree.

These two de­but nov­els by young writers, one English, one Amer­i­can, have a mem­ory loss at their core.

While this may seem an odd co­in­ci­dence, per­haps am­ne­sia is a metaphor for our age of too much in­for­ma­tion, in which ev­ery teenage in­dis­cre­tion or ill-con­sid­ered tweet is recorded for eter­nity, yet where ev­ery­thing seems pro­vi­sional, scat­tered, frag­mented, sub­jec­tive.

Any novel that ex­am­ines am­ne­sia asks big ques­tions. Who are we? Are we who are be­cause of what we re­mem­ber we did or what we do? How do we ne­go­ti­ate or nav­i­gate a place in a con­tin­u­ously mov­ing world with­out the an­chor of the past? And how re­li­able is the past, even when we can re­mem­ber? Af­ter all, isn’t the great­est fic­tion of­ten au­to­bi­og­ra­phy?

Be­fore I Go To Sleep is the im­mensely en­gag­ing de­but novel of Lon­don-based S. J. Wat­son, who wrote it as a stu­dent of Bri­tain’s feted Faber Academy, which has re­cently opened an Aus­tralian branch in part­ner­ship with Allen & Un­win.

Christine wakes in an un­fa­mil­iar room to see an old woman star­ing back at her from the mir­ror. The man who says he’s her hus­band Ben re­minds her that she suf­fered a ter­ri­ble ac­ci­dent in her 20s and can re­mem­ber only the present day. When she goes to sleep, she for­gets ev­ery­thing, and wakes ev­ery morn­ing need­ing to re­dis­cover where she is, who she is, why she is the way she is.

She’s as vul­ner­a­ble as a child: how can she be­lieve any­thing or trust any­one?

This con­fu­sion is ex­ac­er­bated when she re­ceives a phone call from a Dr Nash, who tells her she has been keep­ing a hid­den jour­nal, try­ing to re­cover what mem­o­ries she can, such as of the son she doesn’t know she had or the novel she wrote that Ben has never men­tioned. The first en­try warns her not to trust Ben.

So be­gins an un­set­tling ex­ca­va­tion of her un­cer­tain past. She’s struck by men­tal im­ages of her son, of Ben, of a woman at a party, but she can­not be sure if these are dreams or mem­o­ries. Does Ben hide as­pects of her past for her own good? Or is there some­thing more sin­is­ter at play?

Cat Pa­trick’s young adult novel For­got­ten is as exuberant and rest­less as its pro­tag­o­nist, Lon­don, who also can re­mem­ber only the present day. How­ever, Lon­don also can ‘‘ re­mem­ber’’ the fu­ture, which she uses as to guide her for the day ahead, as well as keep­ing a jour­nal of the day that has passed.

Like Christine, Lon­don’s af­fected by a trou­bling mem­ory, though un­like her other fu­ture mem­o­ries she can­not tell when it will hap­pen. Nor can she see her ‘‘ hot’’ love in­ter­est, Luke, in her fu­ture.

As she grap­ples with the slings and ar­rows of ado­les­cence and the mys­ter­ies of her con­verg­ing past and fu­ture, she dis­cov­ers more than she, or the reader, could have ex­pected.

Both these books have prob­lems, tee­ter­ing on the edge of their con­ceits. Ev­ery morn­ing is a rep­e­ti­tion of the ones be­fore, mak­ing you wish they would just cut to the chase. When each does, to­wards the end, the pace and ten­sion ramp up to grip­ping lev­els, even if their de­noue­ments seem a lit­tle too neatly and tritely re­solved.

But most ir­ri­tat­ing is the use of the present tense. English nov­el­ists Philip Pull­man and Philip Hensher re­cently started a dis­cus­sion on the pop­u­lar­ity of the present tense, with Pull­man de­cry­ing ‘‘ its claus­trophic and lim­ited range of ex­pres­sive­ness’’ and Hensher blam­ing it on cre­ative writ­ing cour­ses and film treat­ments (films of each of these nov­els are in the works).

I have to agree. While the present tense is an in­ter­est­ing de­vice for a short story, through the course of a novel it can be­come tiring, like try­ing to fo­cus on a jit­tery hand­held cam­era.

In Be­fore I Go to Sleep and For­got­ten, the lack of ei­ther pro­tag­o­nist’s past makes it nec­es­sary, but in each the most ef­fec­tive and in­volv­ing pas­sages are those writ­ten in the past tense.

Of the two, Wat­son is the stronger writer. The con­trast be­tween Christine’s mun­dane sub­ur­ban ex­is­tence and the dis­qui­et­ing frag­ments of her past give him op­por­tu­ni­ties to tran­scend the lim­i­ta­tions of the novel’s con­cept and re­veal mo­ments of real lit­er­ary tal­ent.

Al­though For­got­ten’s pro­fu­sion of mul­ti­ex­clam­a­tory ejac­u­la­tions (!!!) and one. word. para­graphs. may re­flect the twit­tery in­flex­ions of Pa­trick’s tar­get au­di­ence, I don’t re­mem­ber Holden Caulfield, for all his cal­low­ness and con­fu­sion, be­ing as ex­haust­ing to read, even when re­turn­ing to The Catcher in the Rye in adult­hood.

How­ever, given how lik­able the plucky and in­tel­li­gent Lon­don is, and how well Pa­trick evokes the many in­can­des­cent pas­sions of teenage­hood, one would as­sume, given the pop­u­lar­ity of the Twi­light se­ries and its count­less im­i­ta­tors, that any lack of lit­er­ary merit or plau­si­bil­ity won’t de­ter its in­tended au­di­ence. And one should be per­haps grate­ful it does not fea­ture vam­pires, were­wolves or zom­bies. Sunil Badami is a short-story writer and es­say­ist who is work­ing on his first novel.

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