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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Donald E. Westlake

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To purchase Memory

Title: Memory
Author: Donald E. Westlake
Genre: Novel
Written: (2010)
Length: 368 pages
Availability: Memory - US
Memory - UK
Memory - Canada
Memory - India
Mémoire morte - France
  • Originally written in the 1960s, Memory was first published posthumously in 2010

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Our Assessment:

A- : impressive novel of a man with a limited memory trying to figure out who he is and who he should be

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly B+ 17/3/2010 Ken Tucker
Philadelphia Inquirer A 4/4/2010 Edward Champion
Publishers Weekly . 1/2/2010 .
Weekly Standard . 3/12/2012 Jon L. Breen

  From the Reviews:
  • "Memory is terse and bleak and low-key emotional, and as indelible as Westlake's other books." - Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Memory isn't just a tour de force that shows a master at the top of his game. It is an invitation to reconsider an "inferior" genre, beckoning us to find unexpected truths within the seemingly conventional. It's also very good pulp." - Edward Champion, Philadelphia Inquirer

  • "Lovely language and the overall discourse on the consequences of thoughtlessness make this a significant final work from a master." - Publishers Weekly

  • "This is a very unhappy book, and as close to humorless as Westlake could possibly get. But it is also relentlessly involving and readable." - Jon L. Breen, Weekly Standard

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       While on tour with a stage-company, actor Paul Edwin Cole gets caught in bed with a woman by her husband. The husband beats up Paul badly enough to knock him out for fifty-eight hours and send him to the hospital; when he wakes up, Paul is a changed man. He remembers some things, like his name, but not much. His short-term memory is poor: he forgets things like the nurse's name. Not unexpected side-effects from a massive concussion -- except that in Paul's case they last. And last and last.
       It's not real amnesia, "it's just that everything sort of fades" is how Paul describes it.

I remember just bits and pieces of things. My memory is like a sieve, everything runs through it. In a few days, I'll probably forget talking to you.
       The theater-group ditched him and moved on, and the police are eager to get him out of town as son as possible, too, so after about two weeks in hospital they escort him to the bus station and send him on his way. His way is in direction New York -- his home address still rings some sort of bell, and he knows the key to figuring out who exactly he is lies back there -- but he doesn't have enough cash to get all the way there. So he goes as far as he can afford - a place called Jeffords --, and takes it from there.
       His limited memory makes things problematic. He has to write himself notes to remind himself of things. The lack of money is even more problematic, but he gets a job (in a tannery) and tries to save up -- which takes a while, because of his expenses, like room and board. The life isn't bad: he likes the family where he has a room, he likes the work. And he even gets himself a girl he likes, Edna.
       But his goal is New York -- he knows he has to go there, and eventually, when he has enough for the bus fare, he leaves Jeffords and heads back home. Except that it isn't really home any longer. A great deal is vaguely familiar, and he recognizes some of the people he encounters -- friends, his agent -- but he's not his old self any longer. And he's certainly no actor: he can't memorize lines, and he can't play the part -- any part -- either: the cocky, sure-of-himself man is now only a shell of himself. Try as he might, he can't recapture that old self.
       It takes him a while to work things out, but he realizes he's stuck in this condition. He can barely relate to the people he used to hang out with -- or rather, they have trouble relating to him -- and he has difficulty figuring out what he should do with himself. One thing he notices, however, is that some memories are sticking with him. There's a disturbing one of some metal object that plagues him, though he can't figure out exactly where to place that memory. But there's also the memory of Edna, and the inkling that maybe that life he abandoned was the better one for him.
       Westlake fashions a surprisingly compelling novel out of this fairly basic premise and simple story, managing an impressive balancing act with this material that could so easily get monotonous (or irritating) -- especially considering how long the novel is. Westlake injects some moments of tension -- encounters with the police, flashes of aggression, Paul's money trouble -- but for the most part this is a subdued novel (just as Paul is now very subdued) of a man trying to find his way, forced to tackle all those big philosophical questions -- right down to 'Who am I ?' -- in a much more direct way than most.
       Memory is a noir novel, centered very much on its now-loner protagonist. Paul thinks he has a mystery to investigate -- to figure out who he is -- and he goes through the detective-motions. But the pieces, even as they add up, don't help him. What he really has to do is figure out who he wants to be.
       Lost soul Paul sees he can't reclaim his life in New York, and he eventually makes his decision, whether to stay or go. But even in its ending, Memory remains true to the genre, existentialist noir through and through.
       It's bleak stuff -- though always with a bit of hope shining through -- and very good. Westlake shows he had the writing chops; it's a shame (and shameful) that his agent had him put it back in his drawer because it was supposedly 'too literary'. Recommended.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 March 2010

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Memory: Reviews: Donald E. Westlake: Other books by Donald E. Westlake under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Donald E. Westlake lived 1933 to 2008.

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