The Week that Was

The Kitschies: 2010 Black Tentacle Winner

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MemoryThe Black Tentacle is the second of the three awards that we'll be handing out over the course of the next week. As a whole, the Kitschies recognise those books that best elevate the tone of geek culture: books that are progressive, intelligent and entertaining. The Golden Tentacle is awarded to the debut novel that best exemplifies these qualities, and the Kitschie itself (a red tentacle) to the best book overall. 

The Black Tentacle, however, is something a little different. It's an award we created specifically to recognize a novel that doesn't quite fit the award description but is so exceptional it merits the highest praise.  We don't expect to hand out Black Tentacles every year.

Of all the novels we read this year, there was one book that knocked our collective socks off; one book we have ceaselessly recommended; one book we honestly believe every single person who visits this blog should read and own and buy multiple copies of and give away at birthdays and bat mitzvahs and any other day that ends in "-day." 

That novel is Memory, by the late, lamented Donald E. Westlake.

There's one real reason Memory doesn't qualify for the Kitschie. There are no fantasy worlds, no sloth-girls or squids, no airships or feral children duking it out in a post-apocalyptic world. It's neither sci fi nor fantasy, even by our committed genre-eliding standards.  Memory is noir, pure and simple, by a master of the genre.

Beaten by an angry man after being caught in bed with his wife, Paul Cole wakes up in a hospital hundreds of miles from home with nearly empty pockets and a fast-degrading memory.  He knows only that he lives in New York City and launches a desperate quest to get home, certain that once he's in his own apartment again he'll remember himself and his life will return to what it was.  The longer he spends on the road, however, the more his memories fracture and decay.  Paul clings with increasing desperation to what slivers of his old life remain - a cigarette habit, the key to a long-forgotten suitcase, a Social Security card - and the knowledge, itself increasingly unclear, that he must get to New York.

Only two paragraphs of the entire novel are from the Old Paul's perspective, and they make plain that he is a hateful man, an arrogant bastard with no regard for anyone but himself.  The man who arises from the dust of the Damascan road is superior to the man who first knelt down, but this Paul's undesired metanoia brings him not peace but ever-increasing confusion and misery.  The new Paul looks upon any present happiness or security he finds as bewildering distractions from the pilgrimage toward his old identity.  As Paul's world closes in on him, the New Paul begins to fade as quietly as the Old Paul did spectacularly, ultimately ensuring a ghost's endless, futile quest to return to life - with no understanding of why or how he died.

Westlake describes Paul's first experience with his amnesia using imagery that will resonate throughout the novel. "It was like going down a flight of stairs," he describes,

not looking, and there is one less step than you think, and your foot starts down for that last step and bumps painfully where there should only be air, and your arms have to pinwheel to keep you from falling, and you drop the newspaper, primary-colored comic pages scattering across the rug.

Paul searches endlessly for the final step in a stairwell of decreasing length, forever off balance as the information that defines his life disintegrates into so many meaningless squares of colored paper fluttering to the ground around him.

Like many noirs, Memory is about identity, about the processes that make us who we are, and the nature - and degree - of the agency we exercise over those processes.  What elevates Westlake's novel above the usual run of amnesia narratives, however, is his sophisticated use of the novel itself as a way to consider these questions.  The reader engages with Paul both in his present amnesiac state and in his former unrepentent shithead state.  We root for the return of Paul's memory because we like Paul, despite knowing that the person Paul so desperately wants to turn back into is a terrible weasel of a man.  The more desperately Paul chases after the vanishing whisps of his old life, the more completely he subverts any hope of happiness.  He keeps moving forward in the hopes of something better, until hope of present happiness - or any real sense of himself - becomes vanishingly tiny.

I quoted the opening lines of Lady Chatterly's Lover in my review of Zoo City to suggest that novel's richly-deserved place in the long-established tradition of what we might call "moving-on" literature:  books about what happens after the world (metaphorically) ends.  "Ours is essentially a tragic age," Lawrence wrote,

so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We've got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.

Lawrence's words are just as appropriate to Memory, and lend themselves to a significantly darker interpretation than with Zoo City.  Paul's story sits at the blackest end of this spectrum of literature.  He goes round and scrambles over while the skies crash down around him, over and over again.  What makes Memory so incredibly dark, however, is that it's Paul's very efforts to prop the skies up that keeps bringing them down.  What's especially horrible is the reader's understanding that it's Paul's own desperate quest for identity that dooms him to a life without one.  The truth is that there's no real hope for his future, and Paul's tragedy is that he can never fully comprehend that; the harder he works to make sense of his telescoping life, the less likely it becomes that he ever will.

If the above makes Memory sound eye-bleedingly depressing - well, it is.  It is also one of the most exceptional novels I've ever read, featuring the self-destructive protagonist and fatalistic themes of the best noirs bound up in the deeply moving story of a damanged man's desperate scramble after something he's lost forever.

We're long-time fans of Memory's imprint, Hard Case Crime.  Hard Case is devoted to publishing new and out-of-print pulp novels of the highest quality, with cover art of a wonderfully compelling pulp school.  I would be remiss if I neglected to mention Memory's stunning cover art, executed in the best pulp style by Glen Orbik - you can see it at the beginning of this post. As much as we like all of Hard Case's books, Memory is far and away the best of the bunch.

Westlake wrote Memory early in his career, probably sometime in the '60s, and worked on it throughout his life.  While we're sorry that Memory went unpublished while Westlake was alive, we're delighted that Hard Case brought the manuscript to light and it is our absolute privilege to be able to present Memory with this award.