Romance and Science Conflict in 'The Memory Painter'

by Brice Ezell

16 June 2015

A very cool sci-fi concept anchors The Memory Painter, but unremarkable prose and tonal inconsistency mar what is otherwise an interesting tale.
 
cover art

The Memory Painter

Gwendolyn Womack

(Picador)
US: Apr 2015

There is nothing by way of plot description on the dust jacket to the hardcover edition of Gwendolyn Womack’s debut novel, The Memory Painter. In lieu of such description, the back of the book teases the reader with three questions:

What if there was a drug that could help you remember your past lives?

What if the lives your remembered could lead you to your one true love?

What if you learned that, for thousands of years, a deadly enemy had conspired to keep the two of you apart?

This brand of rhetorical question starts to make more sense when one reads Womack’s author biography on the back flap of the dust jacket. Her educational background consists of a degree in theatre at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and a Master’s in Fine Arts (MFA) in Directing Theatre, Video, and Cinema at the California Institute of the Arts. With that information in mind, the three framing questions on the back of the book become clear: they are similar to the kind of questions one would see on a movie poster, or hear narrated dramatically over a movie trailer.

This visual sense informs the prose of the knottily-plotted The Memory Painter. Womack’s writing is direct, always driving the plot forward, never saying more than needs to be said. As such, one could class this novel as an airport read, and in its plot machinations and speed of reading, it certainly fits that bill. Due equally to the way it is written and the zippy, herky-jerky movement of the plot, The Memory Painter is an ideal plane, road trip, or poolside read.

That fact of the novel is not necessarily negative, however. In terms of plot, The Memory Painter is a fascinating read, and Womack shows an aptitude for putting mind-bending ideas into a story. Here, her idea is a simple one with profound implications: in the process of attempting a cure for Alzheimer’s, a group of scientists discover that a drug called Renovo (a nod to the Latin root of “rebirth”) can not only help patients recover lost memories from their existing lives, but also their past ones. Those memories can go back one lifetime, or as far back as ancient Egypt, a time and location that becomes crucial to the story of the two protagonists.

The first of these protagonists is the titular painter, a man called Bryan Pierce. For as long as he has been alive, he has been able to access vivid recollections of lives he doesn’t remember living—yet, if the intensity of the dreams is any indication, they are certainly not coincidental. Often, when he gets into a daze while experiencing these past lives, he paints what he remembers on giant canvasses, re-creating the past in such striking detail that he becomes an artist of significant renown. One painting in particular, depicting the burning of a woman in the third century that is being watched by a priest named Origenes Adamantius, catches the eye of a woman attending one of his exhibits: Linz Jacobs, The Memory Painter‘s second protagonist.

In addition to the fact that the painting is signed not with the name Bryan but rather “Origienes”, one other thing draws Linz to the painting: the scene it shows is one that has played out vividly in her dreams since her youth. The painting provokes a visceral reaction in her, one that leads her to believe that she and Bryan are connected by some special force—one, the book less than subtly indicates, that has existed for a long time.

As Bryan and Linz get to know each other, the reader is let in on an important fact: both protagonists were, in previous lives, the scientists that invented Renovo. Things get further complicated when Bryan discovers that Linz’s father, Conrad, the head of a pharmaceutical company, was directly involved with the Renovo project, which concluded abruptly when the two scientists that are the previous selves of Bryan and Linz died in a tragic lab explosion. Conrad’s reticence with Linz about the circumstances of the Renovo project’s conclusion leads both her and Bryan to believe that something sinister is afoot, something that is likely as rooted in the past as their memories of previous lives.

To go into more detail about the plot would all-too-quickly lead to spoilers, but suffice it to say: things get crazy. As Bryan and Linz get to know each other, with both of them discovering new things about their past lives, commonalities and conspiracies start to unfold far back into history. The lives of Alexander Pushkin, Japanese shoguns, and Nordic explorers all become part of The Memory Painter‘s latticework weaving of history.

This multiplicity of historical connections to Bryan and Linz’s lives is both The Memory Painter‘s greatest strength and one of its biggest undoings. The central concept of this novel and its execution reveal Womack to be a writer with an imagination as complex as this story’s timeline. It would require no leap in thought to presume that some film studio has already optioned the novel for a movie; its vivid dream sequences and lightning-quick plot make it an addictive read and a visually rich experience. Womack clearly did her research into the various historical recollections of the book, and she tastefully incorporates this background knowledge without bludgeoning the reader over the head with historical intricacies and details.

However, by the end of The Memory Painter, it’s also easy to have forgotten some of the historical scenes. A select few of the many memory sequences function as the groundwork of the plot, but several also feel like throwaways, means for Womack to make another cool connection merely for the sake of doing so. Take, for example, a scene wherein Bryan visits with his mother and comes across a clock she has recently purchased:

“...The man said it was French and very old.”

Bryan opened the back to look inside at the mechanism that made it tick. “It is old, but it’s not French. It’s Dutch.”

“How do you know that?”

Because I built it in the seventeenth century. How the hell his mother found it at a flea market was beyond him. But she had done that all of his life: found object he could identify from his past. It was one of her talents.

In this particular lifetime, Bryan had been Christiaan Huygens.

Womack explains this connection for about a page and then drops it, referencing it tangentially maybe once or twice in the remainder of the novel. Of course, the point here does tie into the overall theme of the interconnectivity of life, but as it plays out it feels more like an author flashing off a cool plot trick than a meaningful connection to the life of the character. Many other recollections of Bryan’s play out this way; save for the core few experiences that explain his connection to Linz and to the Renovo experiment, many of his dreams are there because they can be, rather than for the purpose of making the novel’s central point more profound. Rather than drawing significance out of the various strands of Bryan’s live(s), The Memory Painter merely hammers home the banal fact that “All life is interconnected”, a claim more artfully illustrated in novels such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004).

This becomes even more of an issue when an additional side-effect of these recollections becomes a key part of the plot machination. As it just so happens, when Bryan recalls some of his past lives, he not only remembers what his predecessors did but is also able to take on their skills, including a form of meditation from sixth century China that allows him to escape from a straitjacket. This transferability of skill is never quite fully explained, and feels more like a convenience for the purposes of moving the story forward.

Bryan’s ability to take on the lives of his previous selves gets utterly comical in one eye-roll inducing scene between him and Linz as they play chess:

“I love music too,” Bryan said. “All kinds of music,” he added, and surprised her by pulling out a small wooden pan flute from his pocket.

She laughed.

“What?” Bryan asked, pretending to look offended.

“You just carry that around?”

He shrugged, a bit shyly. “For special occasions.”

Linz’s “You just carry that around?” clearly reads like a self-reflexive move on the part of Womack, her recognizing that it makes no sense at all for Bryan to be just carrying around a pan flute, no matter how it ties into one of his memories. (“His expression made it seem like there was a story behind [the flute]”, Womack writes shortly after.) Nevertheless, that bit of hedging doesn’t take away from the cheesiness of the scene, nor from its sheer absurdity.

Coincidentally, though, this droll, rom-com worthy moment is not inserted into the story merely to induce laughter. Although The Memory Painter brings the past lives concept to the forefront for the first half of the novel, somewhere around the halfway point the story takes on the color of a romance novel, albeit one with lots of sci-fi plot devices. Bryan and Linz’s attraction is obvious from the start, but it doesn’t at first appear as if the millennia-spanning circumstances of their special connection will result in what amounts to a fairly basic iteration of the “star-crossed lovers” trope. Several shared coincidences later, the two are falling in love, and as they do, the tone moves away from the intrigue of the Renovo project in the opening part of the novel to something like a conventional romance. Rather than feeling like a natural part of the Renovo plotline, Bryan and Linz’s love feels more like one half of a tonally inconsistent whole.

Yet by the end of its fast 336 page length, The Memory Painter has done one thing well: spin a hell of a yarn. Womack’s core idea—the fusion of memory, history, and immortality—is an exceptionally good one, and it makes for a story that constantly leaves you hanging on the edge of your seat at the end of each chapter. The rocky aspects of the storytelling are noticeable, but they ultimately don’t detract from the grounding idea of the novel. The Memory Painter‘s near-summer release is all too apt: you could do a whole lot worse than this inventive trip down the many lanes of memory.

The Memory Painter

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