Books About Memory

Books About Memory

“This list omits two writers, the first being Proust, because how fair is that to anyone else? The second is Harold Pinter, particularly his three incomparable plays from the 1970’s: Old Times,No Man’s Land, and Betrayal. None of them exist in eBook versions that I can find, but I recommend them to anyone, even people who don’t normally read plays. They are hilarious, fantastic, and haunting. That said, I write this in the midst of unpacking all of my belongings in a new apartment, so quite literally every book I own has passed through my hands as I’ve been kicking around the question of memory, and these are the ones that kicked the question back.”

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Jealousy
Alain Robbe-Grillet
“A short novel from the 1960’s set on a tropical plantation, which seems almost impossibly dry—the notorious descriptions of banana trees!—until the penny drops: this is a first-person narrative where the narrator refuses to use the word ‘I,’ as if doing so might shield him from his fears. Instead, every pseudo-objective word becomes charged, as the narrator obsessively replays the same series of events in his mind, desperate to disprove his spouse’s infidelity. Rarely has memory been shown to be so willful, or less stable.”

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Gerald’s Party
Robert Coover
“Another tour-de-force novel, by turns hysterical and terrifying, that tells the story of the eponymous bacchanal, from the point of view of its hapless host. Coover’s greatest achievement, however, is the seamless interweaving of the chaos of the party proper with the swirl of Gerald’s memory—an intelligent, moving storehouse of desire and regret that rebounds with every appetite on display in the present. This is a truly outrageous book that persuasively locates the capacity for outrage in us all.”

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Persuasion
Jane Austin
“In many ways, Persuasion reshuffles familiar elements of Austen’s other novels: the tensions between love and property, freedom and obligation, the bindings of class and the unfettered heart. What makes it different is that the lovers here are older, and have—relative to those earlier narratives—failed, their chance for true love lost. The memory of that vanished happiness hangs like a cloud over each fresh turn of plot: the braid of romance in Persuasion is woven through not with wonder but with sorrow and isolation. Its happy ending carries a completely different air, both sober and ecstatic.”

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Underground
Haruki Murakami
“A different sort of book (and much shorter in English than in Japanese), this is a collection of interviews Murakami conducted after the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo gas attacks on the Tokyo subway, first with survivors of the attack, and second with former members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult itself. Each interview, filtered through the novelist’s sensibility, becomes its own mini-biography, as both the victims and the cult members sift back through the events of that day, an event of such significance that their entire lives become refracted through its prism. Again and again we’re tempted to pass judgment, only to confront our own limits in perspective. Written in 1996 in response to an unimaginable act, Underground now echoes across a transformed world.”

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Sleeping Beauty
Ross Macdonald
“A story that begins with an oil spill off the coast of California and ends with exposure of the corruption, professional and personal, riddling a wealthy family. Most mysteries are about memory in one way or another, buried sin and buried treasure, but what makes Macdonald so great—and greater than Chandler—is that the pain of revelation is met by compassion as well as disdain. His world is no less harsh, but comes fully rounded and alive.”

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Use of Weapons
Iain M. Banks
“Banks’ science fiction is inventive and bold—and brash, knowing, and suspenseful—but he’s also an intelligent writer who crafts his stories in careful layers for maximum, slow-burn impact. Use of Weapons tells the story of a man—a mercenary hired by an advanced civilization to forcibly influence developing ones—in two directions. In one stream we follow his latest mission in all its expedient hypocrisy; in the other we go backwards through his life to the events that first sent him on this path. The skill with which these threads are unspooled and support one another seems almost offhand: unthinkable memories, twisted and suppressed, are tracked to their origin exactly as their cumulative impact is revealed in the present, hiding in plain sight like an iceberg. The result is shattering.”

Smarty Girl: Dublin Savage
Honor Molloy
“A recent novel that reverberates with the act of remembering, most notably from the point of view of Noleen O’Feeney, a Dublin girl caught in the gradual apprehension that her parents’ marriage—and by extension her whole world—is falling apart. Molloy’s writing is lucid and playful, as fluid as recollection itself, and her story dips and darts between characters, always nosing its way through resentment and bitterness to find wonder. Yet for all its beauty, this is a hard book, too, unstinting with facts that won’t be shifted, at consequences that can’t—ought not to be—forgotten. The child grows up and can’t help but see.”

This article originally appeared on Zola Books.

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