The memory artists, p.1
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       The Memory Artists, p.1

           Jeffrey Moore
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The Memory Artists


  Praise for The Memory Artists

  Winner of the Canadian Authors Association Award

  Shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize

  Shortlisted for the Sunburst Award

  Shortlisted for the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction

  Shortlisted for the WordsWorthy Award

  “Combines smartness with wisdom… Almost absurdly inventive.”

  —David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas,

  in The Daily Telegraph Books of the Year review (U.K.)

  “The Memory Artists is wonderful. Rich and humane, a repository of culture worth remembering, and a moving elaboration on the simple truth that we should do good for others.”

  —Colin McAdam, author of Some Great Thing

  “A model of inventiveness.”

  —Times Literary Supplement (U.K.)

  “All the hallmarks of [Moore’s] fiction are here. They include an ability to create engaging characters, and a fine balance of warmth, insight and eviscerating humour.”

  —The Independent (U.K.)

  “Ingenious… mesmerizing… reading it is like immersing oneself in a warm bath of words and ideas. There are many rich nuggets buried in The Memory Artists.”

  —The Gazette (Montreal)

  “A journey of fleeting moments and repetitive scenes, juxtaposing various shades of recollection with a dance of words… The Memory Artists is a marvel.”

  —Edmonton Journal

  “All the ingredients of an entertaining, seductive mystery… Moore repeatedly displays his ability to draw characters through subtle gestures.”

  —Quill & Quire

  “Infused with the same wit, verve and zany imagination that energises Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain… The sections that deal with Stella’s Alzheimer’s are wonderfully written and genuinely moving.”

  —Literary Review of Canada

  “Complex, ambitious structure… Moore should be commended for his inventiveness.”

  —The Globe and Mail (Toronto)

  “Virtuoso wit… Pythonesque (as in Monty, not lethal serpent)… crawling with tragic irony.”

  —Mirror (Montreal)

  “A hilarious yet poignant book about a young genius trying to deal with his mother’s Alzheimer’s… Entertaining and intelligent.”

  —Flare

  “Ingenious… A brainy follow-up to Red-Rose Chain.”

  —Montreal Review of Books

  “A novel that pushes at the edges of expectations… [that] dares to be different.”

  —Edmonton Journal

  “The winner of the Commonwealth Prize has again proven his talent for wry commentary… Moore’s clever, complicated construction testifies to his ability and broad imagination.”

  —Winnipeg Free Press

  “Dazzlingly learned… The results of Moore’s novelistic experiments are the more interesting for being unpredictable.”

  —Books in Canada

  “Twisted, tragicomic and extremely entertaining… The Memory Artists is one of those few novels that can pack humour, pathos, satire, love, friendship, hope and cynicism all in one volume… Like Life of Pi, The Memory Artists is one of those tales too fantastic to be true, yet so convincingly told that we can almost believe it. By turns puzzling, heartbreaking and laugh-out-loud funny, Jeffrey Moore’s witty prose will leave the reader out of breath at the end, wondering what the hell just happened.”

  —The Link (Montreal)

  “Moore’s comic genius is undisputed… The oddball relationship between the son who can’t forget and the mother who can’t remember is fraught with hope and laughter… Ribald and compelling, the humorist is always erudite and there many hilarious sequences that left me aching for more.”

  —Hour (Montreal)

  “Jeffrey Moore’s characters are brilliant and infuriating. Despicable and seductive. The Memory Artists is one of the few contemporary novels I plan to read again.”

  —The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon)

  “A metafictive puzzle box, a carefully structured collage of narrative voices… The novel is a delight… Challenging, often beautiful, and frequently inspired narrative play.”

  —Straight (Vancouver)

  “Genuinely moving.”

  —The Vancouver Sun

  “The story is unforgettably human… [It] leaves the reader spellbound.”

  —Scotland on Sunday (U.K.)

  “It is not often that I truly cannot decide whether a tale is fact or fiction… Jeffrey Moore uses Noel’s genius and synaesthesia to offer beautiful descriptions of luridly coloured (and memory dysfunctional) characters, as well as his experience of his mother’s disease to portray the agony of watching a loved one’s inevitable decline. He also finds time to delve into the sometimes murky world of medical research and comment on the role of medicine as an interface between science and art… Wonderfully intense.”

  —The Lancet (U.K.)

  “There is a warmth and hope—even love—that infuses the relationships between the characters, all in their different ways locked in their personal prisons.”

  —Morning Star (U.K.)

  “A challenging book, bristling with scientific and literary references from Feynman to Baudelaire by way of Nietzsche and Rossetti, this will not fail to make a huge impact.”

  —The Good Book Guide (U.K.)

  PENGUIN CANADA

  THE MEMORY ARTISTS

  Born in Montreal, JEFFREY MOORE was educated at the University of Toronto and the Sorbonne. He works as a translator and lectures at the University of Montreal. He was awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for his first novel, Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain, which has been optioned by Valkyrie Films.

  Also by Jeffrey Moore

  Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain

  The Memory Artists

  Jeffrey Moore

  PENGUIN CANADA

  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)

  Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

  Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd)

  Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd)

  Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi – 110 017, India

  Penguin Group (NZ), cnr Airborne and Rosedale Roads, Albany, Auckland 1310, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd)

  Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  First published in a Viking Canada hardcover by Penguin Group (Canada), a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc., 2004 Published in this edition, 2005

  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 (WEB)

  Copyright © Jeffrey Moore, 2004, 2005

  Lines from “Calmly we walk through this April’s day”: Delmore Schwartz, Selected Poems.

  Copyright © 1959 Carcanet Press Limited. Reprinted by permission.

  A version of Chapter 18 was broadcast on CBC Radio and published in Matrix as “Delight in Disorder.”

  We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts which last year invested $21.7 million in writing and publishing throughout Canada.

  Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada, qui a investi 21,7 millions de dollars l’an dernier dans les lettres et l’édition à travers le Canada.

  All rights reserved. Without
limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

  Publisher’s note: This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Manufactured in Canada.

  ISBN 0-14-301749-7

  Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication data available upon request

  British Library Cataloguing in Publication data available

  Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

  Visit the author’s website at

  www.jeffreymoore.org

  Visit the Penguin Group (Canada) website at

  www.penguin.ca

  To the memory of my parents,

  and to Marlène

  The Memory Artists

  May memory restore again and again

  The smallest color of the smallest day:

  Time is the school in which we learn,

  Time is the fire in which we burn …

  —Delmore Schwartz

  Foreword

  What follows is a true story. For over twenty years I studied a fascinating individual, a hypermnesic synaesthete referred to as “NB” in my numerous monographs and handbooks. Near the end of our relationship, in the winter/spring of 2002, NB and his mother (SB) came into contact with three participants (NXB, SD, JJY) in memory experiments I was conducting or overseeing. This contact proved serendipitous, the pharmacological equivalent of throwing five volatile compounds into a crucible and coming up with a miracle drug.

  The professional writer-translator assigned to recount their story has combined “dramatic reconstructions” with interviews, laboratory notes and diary entries. These records have not been altered, even when unflattering to me personally; in the interests of science, and as a matter of historical record, I have considered it my duty to disguise nothing and suppress nothing. Because post-postmodernism is not my “bag” (my slang may not be current) and English not my “strong suit” (my mother tongues are French and German), I have made only minor revisions to the prose, excising weak or superfluous passages when sure that excision would improve, and bolstering the text with brief endnotes (keep a bookmark in page 299!).

  And now the obvious question. Why another book on this scientific odyssey, at least the third in the past year? Everyone knows that a ground-breaking discovery in the field of memory was made under my enlightened auspices. Everyone knows that for this I was awarded a prestigious Scandinavian prize. Mere hours after my return from Europe, however, controversy began to swirl like fumes from a poisonous gas. Blinded, it would appear, by the demonry of a mythomaniacal “whistleblower,” three American newspapers, in serpentine fashion, have accused me of taking credit for a discovery I did not make—and of professional conduct tantamount to murder.

  Now semi-retired, my glory days behind me, I wish neither to tarnish NB’s reputation (in his way, the young man was a genius) nor burnish my own. Before sinking, however, into that black pit of forgetfulness, the final amnesia, I wish to set the record straight—for my wife, for my daughter, and for the history of medicine.

  ÉMILE VORTA, M.Litt., MD, PhD

  Neuropsychologist and Professor Emeritus

  Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Quebec

  Editor-in-Chief, Éditions Memento Vivere

  writeaprisoner.com

  Chapter 1

  “NB”

  Most people want to learn how to remember more; for Noel Burun, the big task, the most burdensome, was to learn how to forget. Not only the painful things in life, which we all want wiped away, but things in general. For whenever Noel heard a voice or read a word, multicoloured shapes would form inside his head that served as markers or maps, helping him to recollect, in the minutest detail, an emotion, a mood, a tone of voice, the words themselves—of events that happened up to three decades ago.

  Back in 1978, for example, when they came to tell him his father was dead, this is what lit up Noel’s nine-year-old brain:

  A dry and crumbly voice like kitty litter … [turning into] a pockmarked strip of tarnished brass, which tapered swordlike, seemed to disappear, then reappeared as a blood-red pendulum. It began to sway, in brighter and brighter reds, blindingly, and then a change, another voice, a spongy yolk-yellow blob with throbbing burnt-rose rings. A louder, higher voice interrupted, a cruciform shape, cranberry at its nave, the lightness fading from the centre outwards so that the edges appeared pearl white. Another voice, brassy and belching like a bass trombone, and a streak of lightning, jagged-edged and barium yellow, split the sky of my brain in two. Slowly, the serrations melted away, the yellow disintegrating into pulsating steel, and it felt like a dagger had pierced my spine. Then the gravelly voice again from the man in front of me, the tarnished brass and then … silence, against a backdrop of Etch-A-Sketch grey. The “dead mood,” I used to call it, the lull before things returned to normal. I opened my eyes: my mother was speaking, her throat strangling each syllable. A black-suited man from Adventa Pharmaceuticals was trying to comfort her, while two moustachioed men in navy blue stared at me …1

  Especially when he was younger and didn’t know how to stop them, these images could explode like endlessly exploding fireworks, triggering more and more colour patterns and memory clusters, carrying him so far adrift, so far into the back alleys of his universe that he had trouble following even the simplest conversation. Unless it was passive communication, like watching television, Noel needed to absorb a person’s voice, experience the distinct colours and shapes, before he could decipher the words themselves.

  Not surprisingly, everyone thought Noel was off his head, and that was fine with him. His mother loved him, his father loved him, and because of the colours in his head he was able to miss more school than all his classmates combined. The images, moreover, had a practical purpose: although I’ve got little else going for me, Noel often thought, I’ve got a fantastic memory. Which sometimes comes in handy.

  When he did go to school his classmates taunted him mercilessly (“It would’ve been better,” one of them confided, “if you’d never been born”), but eventually they got used to his vacant spells and fog. “Commander Noel” was on one of his “spacewalks.” His teachers, especially at first, would react with annoyance or sarcasm: “Is this, ahem, one of your convenient periods of mental unemployment, my dear Burun?” And everyone would laugh. When he told them, in private, about the colliding colours, they immediately suspected drug abuse: it sounded very much like LSD or mescaline or some newfangled hallucinogen. Was this a matter for the authorities? And so the rumours spread. The brains and dweebs avoided him, whereas people like Radar Nénon, the school’s first acid-popping punk, took a sudden liking to him. He’d finally found someone who saw stranger things than he did.

  “Schizophrenics have abnormal colour perceptions,” one teacher told him, while another said that “It’s got to be aphasia or autism, one or the other.” The school nurse, a chronically irate Welsh widow, had another explanation: “You’ve got a definite defect, son. Deprived of oxygen in the womb perhaps—or dropped headfirst off the delivery table.” But it was none of the above, as he soon found out from a friend of his father’s, a renowned Montreal neurologist named Émile Vorta.

  “Congratulations,” said the doctor with unaccou
ntable good cheer, in French, after a mind-deadening battery of perception and memory tests. “You’re one in twenty thousand. You’re blessed—although sometimes you may feel cursed—with a complex sensitivity known as synaesthesia.”2

  Why is he so happy? Noel wondered, as the doctor shook his little hand. Because he can experiment on me like one of his chimpanzees?3

  “You’re the first male synaesthete I’ve met. Now, I want you to do something that will help us both a great deal. I want you to keep a diary. Do you know what a diary is?”

  “Yes, I already keep one.”

  “A diary is a book in which you write down things that happened to you during the day. Or the events of your past. Or in your dreams—”

  “Once I dreamt I was walking through this gigantic crossword puzzle—”

  “Or the colours and shapes you see in your head when people talk to you. And I’d like to see it at the end of every month. Do you understand?”

  “Sometimes when people talk I wish I had a decoder ring—”

  “Does anyone else in your family have anything like … what you have?”

  Noel paused. “Why, is there a genetic component associated with this condition, Doctor?”

  Dr. Vorta paused. There is more to this child than meets the eye. Seven years old! “As a matter of fact there is … as you say, a genetic component associated with this condition.”

  “Well, my mom’s mom had some strange things in her head like me. Dad thought it was her brandy pudding. She made it triple-strength and one time I—”

  “Very interesting. Yes, it’s most often passed on through the female side.”

  “She was a witch. A good witch.”

  “Was she really?”

  “We got tons of letters from her from Scotland—with magic spells inside—except we can’t find them. When we moved we lost them. I met her once.”

  “Did you really?”

  “I pushed her rocking chair when nobody was sitting in it and she said that’s bad luck, ghosts come and sit in it.”

 

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