Jason Chambers: The second novel in our Sam Taylor-fest is The Amnesiac, which to me was a better novel than The Republic of Trees. James Perdew, a British ex-patriot living with with his girlfriend in Amsterdam, breaks his leg after a curious moment of deja vu. Immobile and hounded by his own thoughts while he recuperates, he becomes aware of a gap in his memory — a three year gap. He returns to the town of H, in England to try to uncover the missing memories and finds himself assaulted by clues — some true, some false, and some indeterminable — to his mental mystery. I thought that the exploration scenes at the house were splendidly cryptic and suspenseful, as were those including the shrinks.
I also thought this novel used a few literary chestnuts in clever ways. First, it has all the elements of a crime novel, except that the crime is undefined. Second is the inclusion of the book-within-a-book motif, with elements just close enough to James’ reality to call them and his memories into question. Third are the philosophical elements Taylor uses — we saw a lot of this in Republic, but those were of the political persuasion. Here we have a lot of great narration calling into question the nature of thought and memory, how they are constructed, and how reliable and controllable they are. Very interesting, occasionally frightening, and written such that they did not disrupt the flow of the story, which I thought was fast-paced and had a nice Gothic flare.
I must admit that I was unsatisfied by the ending (which I won’t spoil here), but after having enjoyed the novel at length, I can’t think of an ending I would have preferred. It may be that such an elusive, mind-bending sort of novel is impossible to wrap up cleanly – and maybe, based on the rest of the book, it shouldn’t be. Amnesiac was a great read.
Dennis Haritou: Hold a dialogue with yourself and it’s a dialogue with the dead. You become your own ghost. In The Amnesiac, James Perdew talks with ghosts…people who maybe are not really there…or people who are perhaps not at all what you think they are. But is he really just talking to himself? I agree with the astute JC’s analysis of Amnesiac but I was troubled. As for the ending, there is no escape from a personal labyrinth except to let go of it which is what happens at the end of the book.
I suppose that my sense that the book could have been 30% shorter and been more satisfying is a misconception. The extended length of James Perdew’s odyssey and its web-like complexity is part of the point. Amnesiac is a 21st century pseudo-Victorian mystery novel gone mad with a large cast of characters of uncertain identity and crowded with incidents that lead to so many blind alleys that the reader is frustrated in his or her expectation of closure.
In Republic of Trees, Amnesiac, and Island at the End of the World, Sam Taylor test tubes his characters: he isolates them from conventional social relations and that’s where the scariness begins. Morality and sanity, two very nice things, are communitarian. The very good JC mentioned James’ exploration of the house that he is renovating, There is a wonderful scene towards the end of the book where James proceeds to the lowest level of the house. I had a philosophy teacher who liked to say that, on a moral and spiritual level, we are sometimes like the owner of a magnificent house who chooses nonetheless to live in the cellar. Sam Taylor has taken us on an open house tour of a basement or two in our minds. No wonder I feel uneasy about this story. But I strongly recommend that you take the tour by reading The Amnesiac and find out for yourself.
Jason Rice: When this book first got started I was thrilled with James (even though he was just a lazy do nothing), he was a wounded hero who couldn’t make his life work the way it was supposed to. But how was it supposed to work? He was a good son, his parents and girlfriend loved him, but he couldn’t reciprocate. All of this raises questions that we never really get answers to. James is especially vexed with his own life. He knew that there were three missing years in his life, and when Mr. Taylor toggles between James telling his story and living his life, the lines between what happened, happens and what will happen are really too blurry to describe. The maze that JC describes is summed up in the layout of Amsterdam, the city structure parallels James’ pin ball mind. Sure, memory fades and becomes something else, or maybe it was never what you thought in the first place, even if you lived it. A wise man once said, there are three sides to every story.
Once he left his old life, or is it his new life that he’s just doomed to repeat, like the film 12 Monkeys, (cinematic imagery is Mr. Taylor’s unspoken wizardry), where the hero goes through time (or what he thinks is “time”) to unveil his own doomed history. Fate befalls us all, but what is fate…if not just a word?
Many of the characters who assign James with the duty of fixing the electricity in the bar, or repairing the house that has some bearing on his past, are all mysterious to the point of being cartoon characters. James makes a fortune but can’t remember where he hid it, but then he does remember, but did he ever lose it to begin with? I was hoping for a thrilling ending, something that would reward my stumbling around in the dark, a treasure, but that was the beauty of the book, it has no happy ending. James was compelled to search for his true self, and he found more questions than he thought possible. At one point I thought James was dead. Maybe he is. Sam Taylor continues to confuse me with tricks and double meanings, The Republic of Trees is still my favorite of his books, and The Amnesiac will always make my head hurt. I take that back, Island at the End of the World would be my favorite if I didn’t see the cinematic parallel almost immediately. I’ll talk about that when I get the chance.
JC: Good call about the basement scene, Dennis. I thought it mirrored the Cave Parable from Plato. Now he has no choice but to quit looking at the reflections and face directly what he has done. Amnesiac winds its labyrinthine way through James’ past and present, leaving almost as many questions at the end as one discovered along the way. Threads are left unpulled, plots left unresolved, antecedents unexplained, but one goes on.
This was my favorite of the three Taylor books we’ve covered. I’m partial to a good crime novel anyway, but the epistemological querying and the dizzying effects of the parallel narratives, in concert with Taylor’s ongoing stylistic brilliance, carried the day.
Coming up: The Island at the End of the World