The Pequod Review:
Donald Westlake (1933-2008) wrote this literary noir novel in the 1960s but apparently his agent advised him not to submit it to publishers out of fear it would negatively affect his reputation as a crime writer. What unfortunate advice. Memory is one of Westlake's very best books, and you can imagine the directions his career could have taken if he hadn't followed his agent's counsel; while we may have had fewer Dortmunders, Westlake probably would have begun writing in the hard-boiled style of his later masterpieces (The Ax, The Hook, and even Kahawa) much sooner.
On the surface, the book's plot is simple: it is the sad story of a healthy young man (Paul Cole) who gets in a physical confrontation and permanently loses his memory. But despite the limited storyline, Westlake is able to create an intense and realistic psychological character study that follows Cole as he realizes that his life has changed completely. It's an unsettling, desperate and claustrophobic story, and it takes a writer of Westlake's talent to bring us into the mind of Cole and allow us to empathize with him:
It was all gone. There were probably other people, other places, other events, about which he’d forgotten so much he couldn’t even ask himself questions about the details. Everything ran though his mind, dribbled through like sand in an hourglass. His mind was a sieve, in which some of the larger pieces of memory took longer to wash through, but everything washed through eventually, nothing was ever retained. Except, so far, Edna; so the memory of her must be, in some way, the largest piece of memory in his experience, for it to be taking so long to wash through.
It wasn’t coming back, his memory just wasn’t going to come back. It wasn’t any better today than it had been the day he’d arrived in New York. It wasn’t any better right this minute than it was the day after he’d had the accident that had caused this, whenever and wherever that accident had taken place; that fact was so far in the dim past that not a trace of it now remained in his mind.
It seemed to him now that he had known for a long while his memory wouldn’t improve. It was so obvious, once he allowed himself to think of it, that he couldn’t believe there had ever been a time when he hadn’t known it as the truth.
He smiled, tentatively at first, reluctantly, but finally with full pleasure and relief. The memory wasn’t coming back! No longer would he have to wait here, no longer struggle to be someone he wasn’t, no longer expose himself to people who could feel for him only combinations of pity and impatience and disgust. If his memory was gone forever, he was free.
And Edna? What had kept Edna in his head after all this time, out of all the separate facts and elements that had entered his broken memory? He had kept her there, wasn’t that obvious?
He was thinking thoughts now that had been trembling on the brink of consciousness for weeks, that he had been all unwittingly forcing down out of sight—because he’d been so mistaken about who and what and why he was—and which had finally become so strong that they had to force their way to the surface. The relief was incredible; he felt so light.
If you like The Ax (1997), read this next.