Thursday, March 17, 2011

Mystery of himself (Books - Memory Book by Howard Engel)

I first learned of Howard Engel in A Man of Letters, a chapter in Oliver Sacks latest book The Mind's Eye, about a man whose stroke leaves him unable to read but not to write (alexia sine agraphia). This would be limiting for most adults, but is tragic for Engel who is a mystery writer. In Memory Book (2006) the detective of many of his mysteries - Benny Cooperman - awakens in a rehabilitation hospital, himself the victim of alexia sine agraphia due to a bop on the head. He must solve the mystery of how he got to be that way. What case was he solving, who hit him, and why? But before that, he must solve more pressing mysteries of how to make sense of the strange blobs on a page that he knows are letters which make words.
I looked around me blankly. I could see everything I could normally see. I saw the nurse, the curtains, the bump of my knees under the covers. Through the window, I could see the hospital across the street. There was nothing wrong with my vision. What's-Her-Name reached over to the folded newspaper by the window and handed it to me. I picked up the first section and opened it. I looked at it in disbelief. It could have been written in Serbo-Croatian or Portuguese or Greek. I couldn't make out the words. I squinted hard at the front page, recognizing the logo of The Globe and Mail. It was English, but the words below were foreign. My hands began to shake. Again I squinted hard; I could make out most of the letters - I saw "The" and "and" - but the normal black-and-white words kept their secrets from me...
Each time he awakens and meets someone, he must solve the mystery of how long has past since the last time he saw them, and whether he has already said to them the things he is saying, as he is also amnesiac. Benny Cooperman learns that he is repeating himself. He can't seem to hang onto the names of people, even with the "memory book" the hospital provides him.

This books reads as though Engel was using the writing, at least in part, as an exercise in recovery, which lends the book considerable professional interest for me as a neuropsychologist-in- training, but doesn't do much for the average pleasures of mystery reading. That part of the book I'm finding rather slow going. But Engel, no doubt, is finding his re-vamped visual system and memory of more immediate interest than plotting another book in the Benny Cooperman series. As such, I found his descriptions of building new routes to access old memories fascinating, and the delightful thing about the conceit of the mystery form his has chosen, is that he must imagine how that same experience would affect his detective Benny Cooper.
It was going to be a peculiar life, I had to admit: part of my old memory worked - I could still remember about the Battle of Hastings and when Julius Caesar crossed his Rubicon - but I could no longer remember the names of my many first cousins. While I was trying to list all sixteen of them, I had the haunting feeling that I had done this before. I didn't so much mind the duplication of the work as I did the feeling that I was looking over my own shoulder to see what was going on. I could remember Anna and her father, but I had lost his first name, And in order to remember his last name, I had to go back to Anna's, which, of course, was the same. I kept surprising myself with my own ingenuity; for instance, I was trying to recall the name Grant for some reason. I spent ten minutes going through the alphabet searching for the name. I succeeded only when I remembered that I'd once worked for a Saul Granofsky, whose daughters had changed their name to Grant. My memory was full of such filigrees of twisted silken strands. My new memory required me to build a latticework of aids to criss-cross my experience and expectation.
It remains to be seen how the mysteries, both of them, turn out. I'll keep you posted.

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