book Amnesia

reviewed by Scott Urban

Published in Issue No. 27 ~ August, 1999

I had the strangest feeling when I picked up this book. At first I thought I had read it before. Incidents seemed oddly familiar, and yet I couldn’t predict what was going to happen on the next page. I still can’t be certain I didn’t breeze through it on some now-forgotten weekend. With the passage of time, my memory grows ever more uncertain – which is part of Douglas Cooper’s thesis in his first novel, Amnesia.

That sense of literary déjà vu may be exactly what Cooper hoped to elicit. The Canadian author has tapped into the Akashic Records, the subconscious storehouse of Jungian symbols that resonate in all men, no matter what their background. Indeed, this is one of the few novels I’ve read that made me wish I’d paid more attention in my college Introductory Psych class or read more Freud. A line from Freud even serves as the story’s linchpin: “The mind is like a city.” Archetypal symbols and dream imagery abound in Amnesia: ravine, seagull, subway, antique watches – all objects invested with a psychic weight belied by their prosaic exterior. I know what they mean to me in the context of the novel, but I wonder if they’d mean the same thing to the next reader?

Constructed as a frame-tale similar to The Arabian Nights, Amnesia opens with our narrator, an archivist in a Toronto library, closing his department in order to get married in several hours. His exit is interrupted by Izzy Darlow, who immediately corners the archivist and begins to regale him with his (Izzy’s) life-story. The archivist protests weakly, but, like the Wedding Guest in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, he can’t withdraw; he’s hypnotized, trapped in Izzy’s story-telling web.

The second of three sons in a singularly dysfunctional family, Izzy is the son of a city planner and a cool, distant mother. His brothers, Aaron and Josh, are, respectively, domineering and withdrawn. Aaron dabbles in bizarre mechanical experiments that bring tragedy to the family. Josh, who suffers from a lisp, wanders the streets at night, scribbling fragments of prose and poetry he picks up from the city itself.

At the same time, Izzy is also relating the biography of Katie, who will later become his lover. She grows up in a house built into the side of a ravine on the city outskirts. She is much more in tune with nature than her peers. She opens her window to the wilderness and is visited by a shadowy figure bearing scraps of leaves as tokens of affection. Although drawn to this mysterious stranger, Katie is horribly traumatized when, one night, the apparition violates her physically and sexually. The assault silences her voice for years.

Izzy grows to become indoctrinated into the secrets held in libraries, learning the awesome weight of the past. He accepts, at least partially, his Jewish heritage, and flirts with shoplifting and thievery. The members of his family, like worlds without a sun around which to revolve, spin off in wider and wider orbits. When Izzy finally encounters Katie, she is a patient in the psychiatric ward of a hospital. They begin a bittersweet romance almost doomed from the onset. Katie is forced to undergo electroshock therapy, each treatment destroying her link with the past and severing her relationship with Izzy. Twisting and looping like a Mobius strip, the ending of Amnesia eventually winds up in close proximity to the beginning, a literary amphisbaena.

At least in part, Cooper implies that we invent our pasts for ourselves through our memories, and that sometimes we forget what actually happened in order to restructure experiences in a more palatable fashion. The mind becomes a time machine. “The time does not go in one direction only,” Izzy comes to realize. “It goes forward, slowly, and backwards, sometimes in great leaps.” As the doctors try to ‘cure’ Katie, they destroy her ties to Izzy, ties that might have been the only things that could save her. Even Izzy and the archivist end closer than they appeared to be at the beginning.

Cooper’s novel moves like a dream in which one knows one is dreaming and yet can’t wake up. The narrative voice shifts so often that the first half of the book is unnecessarily confusing (although eventually the reader will anticipate the rhythm of the changes). Reminiscent of the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Amnesia revisits scenes and recycles images, adding new layers of meaning with each repetition. The setting isn’t the Toronto of the waking world, but rather the Toronto of dreams, a metropolis in which effect does not necessarily follow cause. Ghosts, disembodiment, excavation, resurrection – all of these elements enter this ‘modern gothic’ examination of the human mind and heart. Not everything is neatly explained by the end – but then, it rarely is in a dream.