Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Spilling Clarence, by Anne Ursu

This was a book club pick that I actually liked! I blame my reader's malaise on winter lasting too long, because it couldn't possibly be the case that I was grumpy and impossible to please, could it? Or maybe all those books I've been trying to read all winter really were that terrible.

What do you think?

Anyway--Spilling Clarence is Ursu's debut novel, and it certainly contains some snappy writing and an interesting and well-executed premise. Small town Clarence is home to a psycho-pharmaceutical company, as well as a well respected university. Due to faulty wiring and an antique microwave oven, a cloud of "deletrium" is released into the air. This mythical chemical is used to ferry the actual medication into the brain--when released alone, it stimulates the town to remember. Everything. Which overwhelms the oldest, who have the most to remember, but even affects the children, who presumably have fewer traumatic memories they are forced to relive.

The main characters are Todd, a graduate student in memory studies, and his fiance Susannah. Susannah's mother has periodic mental breakdowns, and has since Susannah was seven. Todd has brought Susannah to Clarence for the university program, and she is unhappy and at loose ends.

Susannah does volunteer work at the local senior living center, Sunny Shadows, where she meets Madeline Singer, a famous novelist. Madeline is in Clarence for her son, Benjamin -- who is a psychology professor at the college -- and seven (?) year old Sophie. Lizzie, Benjamin's wife and Sophie's mother, died in an auto accident while Ben was driving. This is the memory that lays him low when the deletrium is released--he is also among the last to recover, because he doesn't want to lose his newly vivid memories of his dead wife.

Among the victims is an elderly gentleman named Calvin, who has begun courting Madeline, until the deletrium forces him to remember what he saw in WWII, while liberating Dachau. He collapses into a near coma. At the end of the book, he recovers, but has lost his lighter self. He engages Madeline to record his memories of that time, stalling any possible romance while she works on his oral history.

There are some interesting wrinkles: Ben finds out that one of his "memories" actually happened to someone else, thus demonstrating the unreliability of memory. Todd tries to create a game that demonstrates how memory works, only to conclude that while the game demonstrates one portion of how memory works, there are too many complicating factors that affect whether an incident becomes a memory, and fails to describe how memory fails.

It makes for an interesting thought experiment: how would you live if you literally could not forget anything? My book club meets to discuss this in three more weeks, and I have some high hopes for the conversation.

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