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Addictive little mind games

Confessions of a Memory Eater A Novel Pagan Kennedy Leapfrog Press: 174 pp., $14.95 paper

July 16, 2006|Erik Himmelsbach | Erik Himmelsbach, a writer and television producer, is working on a book about the history of Los Angeles radio station KROQ-FM and the alternative-culture revolution.

THE journey to the center of the mind, once a dangerous adventure fueled by illicit substances, has become as humdrum as the daily commute, particularly since Hollywood has put its glossy fingerprints all over it. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman regularly performs cranial excavation in his work ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "Being John Malkovich"); Adam Sandler turns the experience into frivolous brain candy in the new film "Click."

Eschewing gimmicky props such as the remote control used in the Sandler film, author Pagan Kennedy explores mind expansion the old-fashioned way -- with drugs. A magic pill called "Mem" (short for "memory") serves as the object of obsession in her third novel, "Confessions of a Memory Eater." Mem is a wonder drug that enables users to dust off the deep recesses of their memories and take a colorful trip through happier times.

Kennedy, a versatile writer adept at delicately sculpted fiction ("Spinsters") and nerdy pop-culture manifestos ("Platforms"), uses the Mem pill to examine the cruelty of life's cold, methodical clock and the elusive nature of emotions such as joy and happiness. After all, there's nothing like a trip down memory lane to remind us of how the invincibility of youth morphs into midlife resignation, how in a blink, it seems, our best days are in the rearview mirror and the dreaded wall of death just around the bend.

That awareness doesn't usually come in a single transformative moment; most of us are too busy slogging through the daily grind even to notice life slipping away like invisible grains of sand through our fingers. Only when we become miserable do our missed opportunities and mistakes begin taunting us like stalking gray clouds.

In "Confessions of a Memory Eater," the clouds have found Win Duncan. It seemed like just a minute ago he imagined himself a master of his universe, a hotshot, prize-winning academic just out of grad school with a professor wife in tow. Their stop at a small New Hampshire college -- it was the only place both were offered jobs -- would be the leaping-off point for a brilliant career.

Now 40 and counting, Win is wondering what happened. The first stop on the path to academic greatness has instead become a burial ground. His career is foundering, while his wife, Edy, has a lock on tenure -- and it's killing him. "She wrote theory in the bathtub. A show-off, I thought. And was I envious? Damn straight, I was. I'd stopped writing. I'd stopped burning. Ideas refused to come to me. My mojo had left me; my winning streak was over."

As Win wallows, he gets a call from a crazy grad-school pal named Phil Litminov. Litminov was always the Id, the rich kid through whom everyone else lived vicariously, someone who seemed to race through life at high speed without fear. Now in the pharmaceutical business, Litminov has developed a memory-tapping pill that could change the world, and he wants to give Win a taste. Faced with a choice between his desultory present and a trip in a metaphoric time machine, Win can't resist the chance to experience himself as he once was. "I could go anywhere in my life, anywhere! ... Your past stretches around you like some turbo charged Disneyland where you invent the rides as you go along."

Win becomes obsessed with the drug -- and with chasing his past -- effectively slamming the door on the present, his job, his wife. Although his actions are ostensibly "research" for a book -- he believes he'll somehow end up the Timothy Leary of the Mem movement -- there's no mistaking his behavior, that of a junkie hungry for his next fix. "I have to stay high forever," Win thinks to himself as he experiences bobbing in waves as a small boy.

But when Litminov mysteriously fades from view -- presumably on a Mem-fueled mission to face tragic demons from his past -- Win's connection dries up, as does much of Kennedy's narrative steam. So we're left with Win and his neuroses, the faded narcissist in search of his inner golden boy. Until -- aha! -- he befriends fellow Mem junkie Sue Fontaine, a terminal cancer patient who ingests the drug to return to those moments before she got sick, a time when she felt truly alive. As he helps Sue, Win begins to recover a bit of his misbegotten humanity and realizes that the present and future may not be so bad after all. What follows is a tidy denouement that could have come straight from Lifetime Network. That is, what began as a rush ends with a thud, a too-neat conclusion to a potentially thought-provoking story.

Too bad, because Kennedy's narrative packs such a wrenching emotional punch early on, particularly in the context of Win and Edy's tense relationship. At one point, Win muses, "We didn't even eat the same food anymore, now that she'd given up white bread."

"Confessions" is most poignant in its small moments, such as when Win secretly watches his wife walking through the door, going through the mundane motions of arriving home, laying down keys, peeling off her coat. It's telling, wistful and heartbreaking. But the moments don't add up. Instead, Kennedy seems to lack faith in the strength of her story, gussying up a thin volume with bizarre behavioral and plot twists and turns that take readers veering off track. "Confessions of a Memory Eater" offers a nice little buzz, but ultimately it's an unsatisfying trip.

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