Sam Taylor balances mystery upon mystery in his intricately plotted, existential thriller The Amnesiac; each one is like another layer in a house of cards. Does it eventually topple? It does, but only after Taylor has constructed a beautiful, fragile house, one in which most readers would be more than happy to linger.
The protagonist of Taylor’s novel, his first American publication, is James Purdew, an under-ambitious and over-educated 30-year-old living in Amsterdam. James, an Englishman (like the author), has a decent job and a more-than-decent girlfriend but he is troubled with the vague unsettling feeling that he has lost three years of his life, forgotten them entirely. When he breaks an ankle, the time spent brooding alone in his apartment convinces him he needs to return to where he spent those lost years, the English city of Hull, his time in university.
Once there, he becomes a detective of his own past, pursuing the truth but also pursued, both by an omniscient narrator who lurks in the shadows and by a mysterious man by the name of Malcolm Trewvey who hires James to renovate a rotting house. This house is at the heart of the mystery, containing the intangible fractured memories of James’ past but also containing the manuscript of a Victorian-era novel, the story of which mirrors the present.
There’s more, including threads involving shady doctors, and missed anti-allergy pills, and mysteriously delivered envelopes that contain cut-out letters. My favorite bit of surrealism was an appearance by a stoop-shouldered man in a pub, a man who claims to have not only taken over poet Philip Larkin’s library job but also that he has taken over Larkin’s memories: “I don’t even like jazz,” he says, “but it’s in my head all the time now. Jazz and porn. Jazz music and jazz mags. Duke Ellington and spanked schoolgirls.”
Larkin was a famous resident of the city of Hull and his presence is felt throughout the novel. So is the writer Jorge Luis Borges, and in particular his book of short stories, Labyrinths. Larkin and Borges are presented as kind of polar opposites — one mundane and one magical — and both are threaded throughout the narrative, forming one of many dichotomies — the real and unreal, memories and fiction, innocence and experience. That Taylor is able to inject these themes into a decent page-turner is quite a feat, and despite these occasional forays into philosophy, the book never bogs down.
In fact, the book is at its most compulsively readable early on. Taylor reveals little, and it’s unclear exactly what, if any, genre the book falls into. It could be a mystery, with a murder/suicide at its center, a philosophical novel, science fiction, or even magical surrealism, and the little nods in each of those directions makes for a fascinating read. I wondered if the book would remain, in part, unexplainable, in the way that many David Lynch movies, for example, are. But in the end, most of the little oddities are explained away and, for me, the book was reduced somewhat.
There is no better way to explain this phenomenon than to turn to Taylor’s own words. James has returned home for Christmas, and as he scans his parents’ bookcase, he remembers how he used to read nothing but mystery novels. “Detective stories, he thought, should be read backwards: that way the reader could get the disenchantment out of the way at the beginning and end up in a beautifully perplexing world, like his own but subtly different; a perfect maze, in which each word was a cipher suggesting an infinite number of hidden clues, meanings, possibilities.” The book is peppered with intriguing ideas such as this, and the writing throughout the book is of the best kind, well-done without ever drawing attention to itself, or valuing cleverness over conciseness.
Not everything is explained away in the book, and while the reader is given an outline of past events, some of the specifics remain generalized. There is a book-within-a-book, the Victorian-era manuscript, and I feel that Taylor relies a little too heavily on recreating its pages to point the audience, and the protagonist, in the right direction. The Amnesiac is at its best as it ravels and unravels the threads of memory.
What is real? What is imagined? How much of our own memories can even be trusted? Using these philosophical questions as a springboard, Taylor creates a world both beautiful and perplexing, and a thriller as fascinating as an old house filled with hidden stairwells, old cubbyholes and trapdoors.