He had been on the very edge of losing his identity completely, of falling into the hole between the tick and the tock, of falling out of space and out of time and down into gray mindless emptiness, and not even knowing that anything had happened to him.
“That’s what a zombie is,” he told himself. “That’s what a zombie is.”
My reviews, you may have noticed, are not reviews in the sense of “Hey, this book just came out, and here’s what I think of it, so you can decide whether to read it or not.” I assume my readers are primarily dedicated Westlake readers as well. Westlake’s books have all been heavily reviewed in the other sense of the word, so I’m gearing this blog towards people who have read the books, and are simply interested in reading a more detailed analysis, and seeing how their own reactions match up to mine.
Point is, I don’t want to have to run a disclaimer at the top of every single review saying “Be warned, spoilers below.” And I want to discuss what happens in the books in a fair amount of detail (not every last detail), because it’s the story and the character development that interest me most–the stylistic aspects much less. It’s what’s underneath that counts, much more than the surface gloss–the package, not the wrapping. Well, of course the ability to use language well and express yourself in an original way matters greatly to a writer, but without a story worth telling, what’s the point? Sound and fury, signifying nothing.
And what I’m building up to here is that I’m about to review a book, and give away the ending (and much of what comes before), and if you haven’t read the book first, it’s going to affect your experience of it when you do. Much more than the usual Westlake mystery/thriller/comic caper/etc. Because this is a novel that doesn’t follow any formula, any genre, any established form I can think of. It’s a rather unique piece of work for Westlake–so much so that it wasn’t published until after he had died, though it certainly could have seen print before then if he’d wanted it to. Unique enough to be worth approaching with a mind relatively free of preconceptions and expectations. You’ll get a lot more out of it if you don’t know where it’s going.
So as long as we’re clear about that. You have been warned. And one more warning–reading this book hurts. Writing it must have hurt a lot more.
Memory was written sometime in 1963, perhaps the most fateful year in Westlake’s career. Yes, more than 1960, when his contract with Random House began with The Mercenaries, more than 1962, when 361 and The Hunter established him as a noir fiction writer of the first rank–and the latter of the two provided him with his most important series character. Because before 1963, Westlake’s career could still have gone in a lot of different ways. He hadn’t completely decided yet what kind of writer he was going to be, and the proof of that is the book manuscript that was found among his papers after he died, that he had only shown to a handful of people, and which could quite easily have been lost forever.
Westlake had a lot of decisions to make in 1963–he had to decide whether to cut the umbilical cord between himself and the profitable but time-wasting and soul-killing erotic potboilers he’d been cranking out to make ends meet, the last of which came out that year–though for all I know they’d been written before then, and were just coming out in ’63. He still had to decide once and for all not to write any more of them, which given his domestic situation, was a big decision.
He had already ended his long flirtation with science fiction the year before (or so he thought–that corpse went on twitching a long time), and was focusing more and more on the crime genre, and realizing more and more that he’d rather write from the perspective of the criminal than the cop.
But he had one other option open to him–he could be a ‘serious’ (ie, non-genre) writer. He once compared two writers most people wouldn’t have connected–Dashiell Hammett and Vladimir Nabokov–the plot-driven scribbler of hard-boiled detective fiction for the pulps (based heavily on his own experiences as a detective) who burned out after a short but seminal career—and the lauded yet controversial literary aesthete who was frequently accused of being all about style, and is mainly remembered for one book, featuring an unreliable narrator suffering from severe mental health issues.
Perhaps alone among his peers, Westlake saw parallels between the two men, particularly in the way they approached character development. But they had obviously taken radically different directions, each of which had its advantages and drawbacks. It’s easier to write for an established market (perhaps harder than most for Hammett, since he did more than anyone to establish that market), but you tend to be remembered longer if you break with formula and write something more sui generis–assuming you’re really good. Only a handful of writers in a generation are that good (if any), and you need a great deal of luck, as well as talent–plus you may lead a fairly penurious existence if you’re discovered late in life–or posthumously. Being discovered after you’re dead is probably not something any writer aspires to. Yes, let’s have a brief moment of silence for John Kennedy Toole.
The “writer’s writer” is one term we hear–but those are mainly read by other writers. Nabokov managed to become a best-selling and famous author, as well as a critically and professionally admired one, by profoundly shocking the public consciousness. A neat trick, rarely pulled off. Then again, Hammett more or less single-handedly created a new genre, and had an almost incalculable impact on popular culture. He’s remembered for many stories, many characters. And he’s loved by his readers, to this very day, in a way Nabokov probably never will be. Nonetheless, the higher position in the echelon belongs to Nabokov, now and forever. That’s just the way it works. Genre gets less respect. And there are some good reasons for that, as well as a lot of bad ones.
So Westlake had mainly taken the route of Hammett up to this point, writing for popular magazines, publishing novels and short stories dealing in sex and violence (though when you get right down to it, doesn’t Lolita deal in the same commodities?), but he still had to wonder–was it too late to turn the other way, chart a different course? Or somehow combine the two? Was there a via media? Could I get any more ostentatiously pseudo-intellectual here? Let’s find out.
To a great extent, Memory follows a pattern Westlake had already established in three of his four previous novels written for Random House’s mystery division. It features a young male protagonist, raised in upstate New York, who had spent a few aimless years in the military during peacetime, and is now trying to find his place in the world. These protagonists are all somewhat drawn from Westlake’s own life and experiences, as well as people he had met along the way, we may safely assume.
But there’s something else going on here–this protagonist is a professional actor. Westlake had spent a short time working as an actor himself, though his description of himself as a ‘spear-carrier’ indicates he was never leading man material (which a look at the few surviving photos of him from this period would have told you just as well). Some of those early erotic novels he wrote in the 50’s are set in that theatrical world, featuring randy young male thespians making their way through a sea of willing female flesh, and I really do need to read a few of those sometime, but copies of those books are not cheap. This is the first ‘legitimate’ book he wrote featuring an actor as the protagonist. The first of many.
Paul Cole is that rising young star, and the novel begins much the way we’d assume some of those steamy backstage novels did, with him having a purely sexual encounter with another man’s wife, in some dreary little town somewhere in the Midwest, where his touring company has been performing. The cuckolded husband bursts in, and Paul can’t help but see this as a terrible dramatic cliche, but the guy is not acting here. He picks up a chair and skulls Paul with it. This is in the second paragraph of the first chapter–the third paragraph is Paul waking up in the hospital, and having no idea how he got there (yes, it’s quite reminiscent of what happens to Ray Kelly in 361).
Though he doesn’t find this out until close to the end of the novel, Paul has a concussion, which is not properly diagnosed and treated, because he’s got no money, and the cops want him out of town ASAP, and the doctor is a smalltown money-grubbing hack–or something that rhymes with hack. There are large and growing gaps in Paul’s memory of life before the chair made contact with his head. He is also having a hard time remembering things happening to him after the attack. Meaning he has both retrograde and anterograde amnesia, but it’s of the progressive variety–it isn’t clear at first just how serious and quite possibly permanent the condition is.
He seems to be making memories, but is not able to directly access them for very long afterwards (and a memory you can’t access is no memory at all). Exactly what caused the problem is never explained, but if it was, Paul wouldn’t remember the explanation for very long after he heard it. Some memories hold on longer than others, but without constant reminders, via written notes and other devices, they will all eventually sink down into some Marianus Trench of the mind, where not even drugs or hypnotherapy will ever reach them again.
Hounded by one police detective in particular (who envies Paul’s amatory success, though he pretends it’s because he’s disgusted by it), Paul is pressured to get the next bus out of town, and having little money left after paying his hospital bills, he can’t get all the way back to New York City. He is not thinking clearly at all–his lack of memory leads inevitably to a lack of good judgement, or he’d know he should be seeing a lawyer, as well as another doctor. He simply buys a ticket for the town furthest away from this frightening policeman that he can afford to pay for–and that town is Jeffords, a small and smelly burg whose only real source of employment is the local tannery (hence the smell).
He fumbles his way around there, living in cheap hotels, burning through the few bucks he has left, unable to get in touch with anyone he knows (because he doesn’t know who he knows), and ends up working at the tannery–which is a union shop–clearly Westlake is drawing on his research for Killy here–or his own memories of working life after the military? Probably both.
He just wants to make enough money to get back to his apartment in Greenwich Village–he has enough personal data in his wallet to know that’s where he lives. He figures once he gets there, it will all come back to him. But he has to borrow from a small time loan shark at the tannery, so that delays him a number of weeks. He doesn’t trust anyone there enough to tell them what’s going on, but he doesn’t mind the work, and he makes some friends, including a colorful fellow named Black Jack Flynn (and his smaller more volatile friend, Little Jack Flynn), who he hangs out with sometimes at the local bar–Cole’s Tavern. The coincidence is much remarked upon.
He finds a surrogate family with the people he’s renting a room from–and a girlfriend named Edna, a shy plain thin girl with little in the way of education or self-esteem, who thinks Paul might be The One–he comes very close to seducing her, but she’s not ready to go that far, and he feels enough of a sense of guilt to not want to pressure her–but he likes her, more than he is able to admit. His feelings for her are not purely sexual, as they were for the woman he got his head bashed in for. Perhaps he’s never had a relationship like this before. Perhaps the only thing he’s ever been in love with is himself. But he has no way of comparing what he has with Edna to what came before. He’s going on sheer instinct, and instinct isn’t enough.
He keeps forgetting this isn’t really his home, his family, his girl, his life–and then he remembers, and feels a sense of horror that everything he was could be lost forever. That he might have to accept this life of pleasant humdrum mediocrity. He doesn’t really know who he was before, but he knows it was more than this. He knows there must be more than this. He watches soap operas with Mrs. Malloy, his landlady, and wonders if he was on some of them–and we later learn that he was, but she never recognizes him. He’s just a nice young man who is taking the place of her son in the army. The charisma he could once project on the stage or screen is gone. Another trait of memory.
The man of the house, Mr. Malloy, works at the same tannery, is a devoted union man, and something of an amateur philosopher–when he learns Paul is going to leave (the locals assume he took advantage of Edna and is now making his escape), he takes him aside for a few words of advice–not knowing that Paul will be unable to remember them, or how sadly ironic they are–
“Every once in a while in a man’s life he comes to a crossroads, you might say, a place where he’s got to make a decision about his whole future life. But like the fella says, all roads lead to Rome. The scenery might be a bit different on each road, but after a while they all come back together again. And then one day you say to yourself, it didn’t matter a damn bit of difference which way I picked back there. You’ll look back at the different girls you went with back when you were young, and you’ll say to yourself , it didn’t matter a particle which one of them I married.”
“All decisions aren’t like that,” said Cole.
“No, they don’t look it,” Malloy told him, “not up close. Like what you’re deciding now. Whether you’re going to live in this town here or in New York City. It looks like a hell of a difference in that one, don’t it? But what is this town but a bunch of jobs and a bunch of neighborhoods and a bunch of people? And what is New York City but a bigger bunch of jobs and a lot more neighborhoods and a great big bunch of people? So twenty-five years from now you’ll take the subway to work instead of walking or driving, but how much difference is that? Maybe you’ll live in an apartment house instead of a house like this, but on the inside it’s all the same. And a job is a way to make money to pay the bills, so what difference does it make what the job is or where it is? Twenty-five years from now you’ll live in a neighborhood and you’ll go to a job and your kids’ll be growing up, and that’s just the way of it. The place you live might be here or New York City or San Francisco, but who you are and what you are and what you’ve got to look back on will be all the same thing”
Cole shook his head. “I don’t think so”, he said.
Malloy is talking sense, up to a point, but he doesn’t know who he’s talking to. He’s talking to two people–the Paul Cole that used to be, and the Paul Cole that is, who half-remembers what he used to be, and figures he has to try and get back to that. Not all jobs are just to make money, but not all people are going to get that kind of job. Not enough jobs like that to go around. A union man, a factory worker, believing in equality to his very core, isn’t going to get that there are other things that can drive a man’s ambitions besides money and family.
Still, what he’s saying is good advice, and contains genuine wisdom–for the person Paul Cole has become. Except there’s no way this Paul Cole is ever going to be able to look back at his choices twenty-five years from that moment–or even twenty-five days. And there’s no way the Paul Cole he’s talking to can be made to truly understand what he’s saying, because he has no memory of his past life by which he can assess the very limited choices open to him now. Paul gets on the bus, and leaves Jeffords. And although Malloy says he’s welcome to come back anytime if he regrets his choice, it never occurs to Paul to write down the information that would lead him back there. In just a few weeks, Jeffords has become his home, but just like the Paul who left Troy NY to become an actor, he heads off for the big city–to become what he was before. Or so he thinks.
Paul manages to find his Greenwich Village apartment, and miraculously he still has his keys (though not his wallet), and after throwing out the slob he sublet it to, he tries to settle back into his old life. His tax forms remind him he’s an actor. He’s got an address book full of phone numbers, including that of his agent. He’s got books and records, but they don’t appeal to him at all, as hard as he tries to enjoy them the way he knows he must have done in the past. Much of what we think of as our natural tastes are actually acquired tastes–Paul doesn’t even like the serious movies he used to go for, Italian Neo-realism and such–he’d rather go see a musical–which doesn’t require him to know anything.
This is not how amnesia is usually portrayed in fiction–usually the amnesiac is shown to have the same basic tastes and behaviors overall, but he doesn’t remember how he got them. Here, Paul knows how he got them–he knows who he used to be–but he can’t be that person now, hard as he tries. Personality IS memory. They are, to a very great extent, the same thing. Without the memory of past experiences, you simply can’t be the same person anymore. Paul is a blank slate, that keeps getting wiped clean, over and over. But he thinks that if he keeps forcing himself into the old mold, his memories will come back, and he’ll be who he was.
He goes to see a priest, somebody he can trust with his secret, and the priest is mainly tickled by what a strange theological conundrum Paul is–doesn’t know what religion he belongs to, if any–does he need to be baptized or confirmed all over again? Can he confess to sins he doesn’t remember committing? The old man is still geeking out over it as Paul leaves in confusion. Paul should have probably gone to the Catholic Worker house on 3rd Street, but how’s he supposed to know that?
He meets his friends from the acting world, the artsy Village scene (which going by Westlake’s description, has not changed all that much in the last half-century or so, though the rents sure have), and they find out what’s happened to him–and at first they’re sympathetic, and try to include him in their activities. But as it becomes clear that he really doesn’t remember them, except for the odd few fleeting impressions, they begin to cool towards him. Then they just start to actively shun him.
It’s not that they’re bad people–really not so different from the people back in Jeffords, as Malloy said (which would probably horrify them to know, as much as it would many of the people in Jeffords). But without his memory, Paul has nothing to contribute to their world anymore. They resent him for reminding them how fragile life is, how easily everything can be taken away from you. It’s one thing to see it in some Italian Neo-realist movie about a stolen bicycle, and another to see it happen to someone you know–someone who had talent, a future, cocky self-assurance, sex appeal. And now he’s got none of that. So what good is he?
Paul meets Rita, his New York girlfriend, and she’s a stunning black-haired bohemian bombshell, the kind of girl most men fantasize about–and they can’t connect. Paul desires her, but he has no particular feeling for her, and she finds him upsetting, disturbing. Even when he’s with her, he can’t stop thinking about Edna, and he can’t understand why. It sounds very much like if the amnesia hadn’t happened, this relationship wasn’t going to last anyway. Neither of them expected it to. They were just marking time–though probably Rita had more feeling for Paul than Paul had for her–it was an affair, not a romance.
Paul, we realize more and more, had been living a restless self-centered existence–a pretty common though not universal way of life for actors, who can’t usually afford to get too rooted in one place, and who must constantly cultivate new relationships, take on new personas. So he never formed the kind of relationships that would hold up under the strain of his current condition. If one of his friends, or Rita herself, had developed the condition he has, he’d have dropped him or her like a rock just as quickly. No hard feelings. He just isn’t in the club anymore. He can’t pay the membership dues–or his his actors union dues.
He goes to see his old acting coach, a strange mixture of perception and self-delusion, who tells him you either are an actor or you’re not–and Paul had been a born actor, one of the few–but now he isn’t anymore–something’s gone. So Paul had chosen the right road for him–but then he got forced off it. His teacher seems mainly depressed that Paul won’t be thanking him on television, while holding a statuette.
The most solid relationship he had was a business one, with his agent Helen. She gets Paul to a doctor, has him over for dinner, fusses over him, but her motives are strictly selfish–she wants to protect her investment in somebody she’d pegged as a future star, and she figures in his current vulnerable state, she can finally get Paul into bed. She figures wrong, both ways, and when Paul badly screws up a small TV job she gets for him, she drops him as a client. She’s done her best, such as it is, but her doctor’s evaluation is grim–Paul could get his memory back, but he probably won’t.
He gives Paul ‘truth serum’, and asks a number of leading questions, but even with his unconscious mind laid open, Paul can remember very little of his past–he thinks he can remember something of a parent’s funeral, but he’s not sure which parent it was. That’s how bad it is. The only things that are still vivid for him are Edna and the Malloys. His new family, in Jeffords. The family he ran away from. The doctor gently suggests he might be better off there with them, and he can’t accept it.
Because Paul refuses to accept his old life is gone, part of us refuses to accept it as well. He is well aware his situation is desperate, but he hopes against all reason that he can find a way back–and we’ve been hoping along with him, because after all, don’t we all wish for a more exciting varied exceptional life? So it’s genuinely shocking when we realize, along with Paul, that he made the wrong choice. That he should never have left Jeffords. That the reason Edna hasn’t disappeared from his memory is because some part of him won’t allow her to.
He was thinking the 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.
He needs to get back there, to the place where the new Paul Cole belongs. But he doesn’t remember how. He doesn’t even remember the name of the town–he gets the name of the last town he worked in as an actor from an annoyed and distant Helen, and buys a bus ticket there, thinking that must be where the tannery is, the town Edna and the Malloys and Black Jack Flynn live in–when in fact it’s the town he was run out of by the cops, just a few months earlier; the town where Paul Cole the actor was murdered by a jealous husband, and his corpse bought a ticket for Jeffords, where he was born again.
The bus station clerk remembers him–but doesn’t remember what town he bought a ticket for. He gambles hopelessly, buying a ticket to a town that has a tannery in it–it’s the wrong town. If he had his memory, he’d know he could go to a library, and research which towns within a certain radius have tanneries, and he could go to each of them–but then he’d remember where the town was. Actually, if he had his memory back, would he even want to go back there? Catch-22.
So within perhaps a hundred miles or less of his goal, he gives up. He throws away the last few clues to his past existence. He’s already accepted Paul Cole the actor is dead–now he accepts the Paul Cole who was born in Jeffords, had friends he met in a tavern with the same name as him, and loved a plain girl named Edna, is gone too, or will be soon. He’ll just stay in this town, work in the plastics plant (since the tannery isn’t hiring), forget everything that happened to him before, everything he was before, and make a new self out of his experiences in this new town, “the way barnacles gradually build up on a keel.” He’s accepted that his identity now is to have no fixed identity, no real home. “I wouldn’t have been happy there anyway”, he thinks. But he’s been wrong so many times before, we just don’t know whether to believe him or not.
Yeah. It’s pretty dark. Normally, when I’ve finished synopsizing a book here, I start to explain why this is a story about identity, but that’s hardly necessary in this case, is it? It’s the most terrifying identity puzzle Westlake ever crafted, and it keeps you guessing all the way, but from very early on it’s plain as day that’s what this story is about (he’s not usually this obvious about it). It’s not a crime novel, even though there’s a crime in it (two, if you count adultery). It’s not a mystery, per se, though there is a mystery in it–or rather, a MacGuffin. Back in Jeffords, Paul was pulled in by the local police, who are suspicious of this stranger–they’re just as vicious and caustic as the cops in Killy (I have to ask–what happened to Westlake to make him fear policemen as much as he clearly did–what memory did that spring from?).
Paul can’t tell them much of anything about himself, naturally, and they assume he’s holding out on them, so they bring in a shiny flat square piece of metal, and ask him to hold it, and tell them if he recognizes it. All he sees is his own distorted reflection. That’s the other thing he remembers most vividly, along with Edna. He has nightmares about it. He sees it everywhere, that piece of metal, with his face on it. But in that last town he winds up in, he asks a policeman what it could have been, and turns out it was just a trick to get his fingerprints, so they could find out if he had a record without scaring him away. They wanted to find out who he was. He thinks that’s pretty funny, when he finds out. But he’s not laughing.
So here’s the real mystery–why didn’t Westlake ever publish it? Obviously it wasn’t a great fit for Random House’s mystery division–where Westlake was publishing his more serious hardcover stuff. It was hardly going to work for Pocket, where he was publishing his Parker novels. It isn’t a crime novel, and it isn’t science fiction either–though it shares some points in common with Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man, that was made into a powerful film back in the 50’s. In both books, the protagonist gradually fades away to nothing, but instead of ending with a defiant affirmation of existence as in Matheson’s book and screenplay, Memory closes with a dull moan of resignation. Identity is a construct that can be broken like an egg by some cliche brandishing a chair. All that’s left afterwards is the habit of living–though there is a certain courage, all the same, in the way Paul decides to go on living, no matter what.
Donald Westlake published over a hundred novels of many types in his life–and a few that are damned hard to type. I have to believe if he’d really wanted to, he could have gotten this book into print. He could always have published it under a pseudonym, as he did so many others–though somehow, this is a Westlake. And once he became an established name, a beloved figure, with a devoted fanbase–then it would have been dead easy to find a buyer. Once the manuscript was discovered, it took almost no time at all for it to find a home at Hard Case Crime, which was more than happy to make an exception to its normal fare for one of the supreme masters of noir–and honestly, if this isn’t noir, what IS noir? Seriously, I’ve never been quite sure what the hell noir is. But if Memento is noir, surely this is too. Just a lot less romanticized–in fact, almost entirely de-romanticized. The part of Westlake that was Richard Stark must have hated it.
So given that Westlake clearly didn’t want it published, why didn’t he want that? And if he didn’t want it published, why did he keep the manuscript? It would have been so easy for this Memory to be lost, forever.
As I said up above, Westlake had reached a point in his career where he had to start making some pretty critical choices of his own. To decide who and what and why he was as a writer. Memory, I think, was written as a way for him to decide if he could be another kind of writer–more along the lines of Nabokov, but still with a very large dose of Hammett–the thing he admired most in both men was their ability to tell you what’s going on in a character’s mind without coming out and saying it.
But in Memory, as we’ve seen, he was forced to come out and say, in third person omniscient narrator form, exactly what’s going on in Paul’s mind. He couldn’t very well write it as a first person narrative, given Paul’s condition, even though the entire book is from Paul’s POV. Paul would be an unreliable narrator, like Humbert Humbert, if he could be the narrator, but he can’t. So that’s part of it, possibly–Westlake felt unsatisfied with the results. He had failed to hit the goal he’d aimed for. But he’d published other books he felt the same way about (Killing Time was one)–so there must be more to it than that.
It has occurred to me that maybe he’d put too much of himself into it–maybe there were some painful memories of his own youth in there, and some people he’d known and cared about, and he didn’t feel right about putting them out there in such a relatively undisguised form–much easier to cloak them in the raiments of the crime genre, so even if a few of them happened to see Westlake’s name on the cover and read the book, they’d no more recognize themselves than Mrs. Malloy recognizes Paul as a former actor on her favorite soap.
It’s worth noting that Paul’s middle name is Edwin, same as Westlake’s–and although before his misfortune, he had the acting talent, the looks (and the consequent success with women) that Westlake himself had only fantasized about. Still, in choosing a creative path, rejecting the pull of the ordinary life, saying over and over in his work that life choices do matter a great deal (as the fatherly Mr. Malloy insisted they didn’t), Paul does seem to be Westlake’s contemplation of a life without talent–because after all, nobody could be a writer without memory either.
So is this book somewhat autobiographical at points, as Killy might have been? Perhaps. But again, there are other novels, like Killy, that he did publish that seem to be a bit more personal as well. Could be there was a real Edna out there somewhere–or that her name refers to Westlake’s middle name as well. Certainly a lot of Westlake’s friends (and enemies, and frenemies) from the Greenwich Village scene must be in the book. But again, not enough to explain him never publishing it, even towards the end of his life.
Here’s my idea, for what little it’s worth–I think he was ashamed of the way he’d treated Paul Cole–that’s why he didn’t publish the book, and that’s why he couldn’t destroy the manuscript either. Okay, why would that be? Hadn’t he basically killed off two protagonists already? Aren’t his books one long succession of horrible things happening to people? Yeah, but maybe they were not so real to him–in the crime genre, you have to expect a few casualties. In ‘serious’ books too, of course, but you feel it more there. In many ways, we read crime books to be less afraid of death and make the various hazards leading to it seem less frightening, more exciting. There’s nothing glamorous about Paul Edwin Cole’s slow sad mental demise.
And here’s the thing–he’d given all his other protagonists, successful or otherwise, an out. If they failed, they failed because they made the wrong choices–but they could have possibly made the right ones. Because they had their memories to guide them. If they failed to figure out who and what and why they were in time, that was on them–he listened to them, and let them speak through his fingers into the typewriter, and sometimes they chose wrong (though it must be said, most of his heroes eventually chose right).
But he’d deliberately taken away Paul’s ability to make the right choice. He’d blinded him like Oedipus, left him to moan helplessly in the dark, because–well, because he wanted to see what that would be like. He wanted to gaze into the abyss, and see the abyss gaze back at him, and say “I’m not afraid of you.” But I think he was. The book smells of fear. That may be another reason he didn’t like it.
But in writing it, then putting it aside, he’d come to a decision. He would be a writer who gave his protagonists a chance. He’d tried this strange melding of elements–Dashiell Hammett meets Vladimir Nabokov meets Oliver Sacks meets Franz Kafka meets Jean Giraudoux–and it wasn’t who he wanted to be. He wanted to write about people who had a chance–who could make the right choices if they chose to, overcome the odds, find out who they were (or in Parker’s case, just know it). Maybe they wouldn’t all make it. But it wouldn’t be because he hadn’t given them a fair shot.
He wasn’t going to write about the Humbert Humberts of the world, doomed before they start by self-delusion and inner weakness. He was going to write about people who take their destinies in their hands, and meet the world on its own terms, and (more often than not) triumph, or at least survive. That’s who and what and why he was as a writer.
But he didn’t abandon Paul entirely. He left him there, in a drawer, waiting–for a time when we could look back and see the road not taken. And Paul Cole could remind us more vividly than George Santayana ever did that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Only not the good parts.
Still, Paul’s condition does come with one positive trait–robbed of memory, he’s also robbed of preconceptions, and in many ways he sees people more clearly than he ever did before. “–in every contact he made with others of his species there was always a wall of either indifference or self-concentration that couldn’t be surmounted.” Yes, he learns a lot about us. He just can’t remember it long enough to be of any use.
But as 1963, that most fateful year of all in Westlake’s career unfolded, he would publish not one, not two, not three, but four novels about a protagonist whose perceptions are just as unclouded–but whose memory is quite functional. In fact, he doesn’t forget much of anything. Unfortunately for some people. And if he saw his face reflected in a piece of metal, he wouldn’t care what it looked like. It’s what’s underneath that counts.