BOOK REVIEW, “The Memory Addicts,” by Derek Kannemeyer
“A virus-induced plague causes mass forgetfulness in a colony of Virginians in a literary SF novel…
“During a worldwide plague that has spread from Eastern Europe and may or may not be human-made, a dozen or so survivors subsist in rural Virginia. Their bizarre ailment basically causes memory loss—though more severe symptoms can include catatonia, violent psychosis, and death—with commensurate emotional upheavals. One in 20 people has natural immunity; others are slower to contract the mind-altering disease. As the colony perseveres in diminished fashion (there are still utilities, TV, and the internet), scientists working on a cure hastily formulate a succession of “X”-coded medications. A batch called X7, though showing promise, is recalled when health care worker Jody secretly steals a stash for herself and her friends. The pills, while ostensibly restoring lost memories, have the perniciously addictive side effect of amplifying existing ones vividly**. They can also conflate memories. And it transpires that Jody, her friend Edie, her boyfriend, Millar, and the rest have some awful things in their tangled pasts to confront. Or not confront, as the case may
be, as the ensemble relives past traumas and relationships, both actual and imagined. It’s a fantastical, Borgesian premise, though the Covid-19 pandemic (not to mention an implied Alzheimer’s metaphor) gives a contemporary tone to meditations—mostly by characters in no condition to meditate—on the nature of identity and its relation to memory. There are extensive references to Proust, rock song lyrics (some characters were in a band together), and local Virginia history. All of it keeps the level of intellectual engagement high, even when the effects of the contagion bring to mind amnesiac, zombie, and apocalypse tropes. Characters scramble their own realities via X7 abuse (despite Millar’s attempts to maintain order via written bios and journaling), and a five-year narrative timeline unfolds in nonchronological order. Given that structure, some readers may find the jagged, loosely full-circle storyline more than a little disorienting—much like the muddled interior lives of Philip K. Dick’s junkies and informants in A Scanner Darkly—while others may see it as perfectly befitting the jarring dislocations of Covid-19.
“A challenging, topsy-turvy addition to 21st-century pandemic-inspired literature.”
** Or more accurately: “of amplifying them, and of equally vividly implanting false ones.” (Author’s note.)