Memory – Donald E. Westlake

4 out of 5

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This is brutal. And brilliant. Or is it boring?

It’s hard to say if a less seasoned author could get away with a book like this: in which the main character loses his memory in the first few pages… and then spends 300 pages essentially waiting for it to come back. On the surface, there’s no urgency in Donald Westlake’s final novel, Memory, and yet it’s riddled with tensions: of the day-to-day; of having to start over with every step. It’s terrifying. Westlake has, essentially, flipped some of the genres in which he’s proven himself – noir; mystery – on their heads, as Paul Cole has flirtations with both of these at the edges of his thoughts, some type of affair and fisticuffs leading to his recall-breaking head injury, and the littlest dribbles of what amounts to his “former” life dogging his steps. But the former isn’t used to set up any revenge-seekers, or forgotten bookies, and the latter doesn’t dog in the sense of pursuing Cole, though it feels as such: unable to remember events from before his accident, and hard-pressed to remember things from yesterday unless he concentrates, every faint indication of something he feels he should know is just a punishment – an ironic reminder of what he cannot bring to mind.

Westlake keeps us on the hook throughout with the promise of returning memories, and images and instances poke at that along the way. But for every step forward – some new thought claimed – there’s a painful step back, when notes we’ve read Cole making for himself are completely ununderstood the next day, or items that have relevance are discarded without much thought. This continual push – continually pushing us away from the Solve, even though Cole is determined to regain his memory, staying in a small town and trying to earn money to head back to where he knows he used to live, in New York – can, indeed, lead to long stretches of tedium: Westlake describes the day-to-day of an average Joe, who works at the tannery and takes his girl out on Sundays. And even when Cole takes some leaps toward reestablishing himself in his former life, he’s very reliant on routine to “fake” that life, and we’re privy to every step of that routine.

It’s a fascinating approach to the concept, and, again, I’m not sure if an unknown writer would have our faith throughout that it’s building toward something; I do think Westlake is able to lean in to his rep here to test his readers, allowing the dawdling to oddly be rather gripping. Expect panic attacks throughout the book when you relive some of your worst, most destitute moments – moments when you were completely out of your depth, and out of sorts. Cole, not recalling much one day to the next, essentially feels that way at all times; and at a higher level, there’s the sense of Westlake “recasting” his own legacy as a writer, and wondering what would be different if he’d tread a different path. The results of that thought experiment, from that point of view, are either tragic or insouciantly promising; for Cole, it’s very much the same; and for the reader, it’s a choice: do you allow Westlake to work his magic, to draw you in and lead you on for hundreds of pages and then deliver a rather punishingly open ending, or do you suss out the game early on and decide you have better things to do? Either way, the book has had an effect; Westlake got to play his final hand with a crooked smile.