The day came, finally. Then again, perhaps it didn’t.
—Tom McCarthy, Remainder
Like the future, amnesia has become a crowded literary terrain. Rare in life, amnesia abounds in contemporary literature and in the most stylish contemporary movies (see Christopher Nolan’s ingeniously contrived Memento, in which a man suffering from amnesia is forced to write notes to his “future” self to enable him to “remember”). The attraction of waking not to the usual flood of memories and associations like dirty dishwater but to a tabula rasa of infinite possibility is obvious, especially in a debased political/cultural era: amnesia is “a floating metaphor,” as Jonathan Lethem says in his introduction to The Vintage Book of Amnesia, “very much in the air.”
What might be called the amnesiac fantasy holds irresistible attractions for both writer and reader since it seems to replicate the mysterious and seductive adventure of the yet-unwritten/ yet-unread text. No living mind can be a true tabula rasa, but the yet-unknown text emulates that blankness, a promise that excites both anticipation and anxiety. The amnesiac hero frequently wakes up utterly baffled by who he is, where he is, why he has been brought to so purely existential a state:
About the accident itself I can say very little. Almost nothing. It involved something falling from the sky. Technology. Parts, bits. That’s it, really: all I can divulge. Not much, I know…. It’s a blank: a white slate, a black hole.
(Tom McCarthy, Remainder)
I had no idea who or where I was. This was no sudden revelation, no big shock. The thought…didn’t bring with it any big horror or fear…. It isn’t all coming back to me. I don’t know any of this at all.
(Steven Hall, The Raw Shark Texts)
The reader ideally identifies with the condition of not-knowing and must willingly suspend “disbelief” in the anticipation of what is to come. Out of catastrophic blankness, an entire world is to be constructed in which nothing will be out of place or unintended, and the initial mystery of who, where, why will be explained, or at least assigned a meaning, if only an affirmation of nothingness.
Unlike amnesiacs in life, whose fugues of pathological forgetfulness are likely to be caused by strokes, brain tumors, alcoholism, malnutrition, severe trauma to the head, and degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, literary and cinematic amnesiacs have usually suffered psychological traumas, to be revealed in flashbacks; or, if they have suffered actual brain damage, like the private detective hero of Peter Abraham’s elaborately constructed mystery-suspense novel Oblivion (2005), who has “glioblastoma multiform” (a kind of brain cancer), these injuries are likely to be surmounted by an effort of will. Protagonists of amnesiac romances are not so much handicapped by their neurological defects as empowered by them to embark upon heroic quests of regaining identity, or, better yet, forging new identities.
As suffering the loss of one’s home and possessions in a fire may be…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.