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Thursday, June 07, 2018

The Mysteries of Donald Westlake's “Memory”

Donald E. Westlake might be best known as the author and creator of the hard-boiled Parker character that features in several literary and cinemaitc fictional outings. But a few years ago, a smaller publisher called Hard Case Crime published one of the author's missing, or . “never before published” works, entitled “Memory”.

Written in the 1950s, the plot concerns an up-and-coming stage actor who suddenly loses his functions for all faculties and facilitation of proper memory because of an attack by an angry husband, whose wife the actor had been having an affair with. The betrayed husband hits the actor over the head with a wooden chair, and the novel opens up in the hospital as the actor is awakening from this attack, only to find that he has lost every facet of his previously-working memory. He's lost his short-term memory, his long-term memory, and his ability to retain any memory past the near-present, unless he develops a fairly strict pattern of absolute repetition in his existence. This pattern has to be constantly supported with self-written notes and reminders through the underneath of the new daily routine. Donald Westlake then takes us on a four-hundred-plus-page journey through his lead character's existential nightmare; which for me, raised some skin-prickling philosophical questions, as well as a very big brain-nagging culture question...

The cultural question might not be what one might consider to be expected – in that my own question is actually relegated to something else that has popped up regarding Westlake's themes of memory loss, and to a great contribution to pop culture at that – through Christopher Nolan's breakout film, Memento. My question on this, where in Nolan's film his lead character suffers with the very same existential nightmare as that of Westlake's creation, is sort of a two-parter: Did Nolan somehow have the opportunity the claimed “never before published” manuscript, and was then able in incorporate many of these philosophical ideas of memory and existence into his own screenplay for Memento – or – are these questions just existentially inherent in any of us (like Christopher Nolan and/or Donald Westlake) for us to delve into if the notion ever occurs to us to ask?

My second question as to the mystery of Westlake's book, then, concerns the philosophy itself: Does existence actually really matter if we have no memory to use to incorporate, and in a sense, categorize (and even internalize), our own existence? With huge credit given toward Donald Westlake, he actually attempts to (and depending on your personal opinions, he does) answer these nearly mind-boggling questions. These are questions that stretch our imaginations, to be sure, as well as our own anxieties and nightmares about what it is to be a human being. The nearly heart-wrenching (yet surprisingly subtle and deeply meaningful) ending to Westlake's novel Memory might give most people answers to these philosophical questions, whether they wanted them or not – because the conclusion depends on if living in the present is exciting or horrifying, in your personal perspectives, which is what makes the entire novel, from page one, utterly riveting.

(The film, Memento...)

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