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A Night Not to Remember: S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep

Book #6 for 2012: Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson

For a relatively rare condition, anterograde amnesia — the chronic kind, not the occasional kind that results from popping an Ambien at bedtime or drinking too much 80-proof tequila — has inspired a remarkable body of fiction. This is the type of amnesia where you can’t form new long-term memories, where what happens in short-term memory stays in short-term memory and after that it might as well never have happened at all. I think the recent spate of stories about the condition began with Christopher Nolan’s remarkably clever 2000 film Memento, where Guy Pearce tattooed his memories on his chest in a Quixotic attempt to find the murderer of his wife. That movie was rapidly followed by Ellen DeGeneres’s memory-impaired clown fish in Finding Nemo and Drew Barrymore’s infinitely refreshable girlfriend in the Adam Sandler film 50 First Dates (which was so bad I barely saw enough of it to give it time to get past my own short-term memory). But there have been other attempts at turning the syndrome into fiction — for instance, the eminently forgettable 1994 Dana Carvey movie Clean Slate, about a man who woke up each morning having completely forgotten the previous day. (At least I assume it was forgettable, because I honestly can’t remember whether I saw it.) And the late science fiction writer Philip José Farmer beat everyone to the punch and probably produced the most ambitious variation of all with his 1973 novella “Sketches Among the Ruins of My Mind,” in which an entire town woke up every morning unable to remember what they’d done the previous day.

With all of those variations, you’d think anterograde amnesia and its many fictional variants would have been completely played out by now as a premise for fiction. Think again. S.J. Watson’s pop thriller Before I Go To Sleep is about a woman who, yes, wakes up every morning unable to remember what happened the previous day. In fact, she pretty much can’t remember anything that’s happened since shortly after she graduated from college, even though she’s now well into middle age. All she knows — and finds out again every day — is that she wakes up next to a man who has to explain to her that he’s her husband Ben, that she had an accident that left her in a state where she loses her memory when she falls asleep (so unusual a form of anterograde amnesia that even doctors seem to go a bit dull-witted when they try to explain it) and that maybe one day she’ll remember him well enough to want to have sex with him again. (Given that they never have more than a few hours’ acquaintance, you can see the problem here.) And she also has a doctor who’s both treating and researching her case, who for some reason doesn’t want the husband to know anything about him. He recommends that she attempt to create a kind of pseudo-memory by keeping a daily journal, sort of a more detailed version of Guy Pearce’s chest tattoos. This journal constitutes the majority of the novel.

Is it a good novel? Well, I can say several good things about it. I read it in a little over two days, which given my current case of anterograde attention span is pretty damned good. It’s hard to put down. And this kind of novel, where nothing is as it seems because it starts out with the protagonist not knowing a damned thing about how anything seems, not only has infinite possibilities for plot twists but for plot twists on the plot twists and Watson doesn’t stint on the unexpected narrative switchbacks. (It also has the built-in advantage of allowing the author to indulge, quite legitimately, in the tritest form of plot exposition imaginable: having characters explain the obvious to someone who, by all rights, should already know it).

But Watson’s characters keep vacillating between, shall we say, two-dimensional and two-and-a-half-dimensional. Sometimes I kinda believed that they were real people and sometimes I was all too conscious that they were just plot devices. And his dialog often has the stiff sound of obligatory exposition because, well, that’s exactly what much of it is. Still, I found that anterograde amnesia still has a remarkably powerful effect as a plot device and the premise alone held my attention through the entire book, right up to the last page, even when the plot itself didn’t (though to give the author credit his twisty plot pulled a lot of weight on its own). So, yes, I enjoyed the book and recommend it as quick-read-on-a-long-plane-flight material.

Toward the ending, though, it began to degenerate into a Mary Higgins Clark-style woman-in-peril thriller. (Does anyone still remember Mary Higgins Clark? Is she still writing? Is she still alive?) I’m sure there’s plenty of other similar suspense fiction on the market but probably not with anywhere near this effective a gimmick, which in the end is what makes it, well, kinda memorable. In a forgettable sort of way.

About Christopher Lampton

Chris Lampton, a cofounder of the e-book design firm Illuminated Pages (see link in my Blogroll), is a writer, an editor, an occasional computer programmer, a voracious reader, and a fanatic video game player. In the course of his distinguished if haphazard career he has written more than 90 books, including the 1993 computer book bestseller Flights of Fantasy (Waite Group Press). He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend Amy and our cat Lola, and now spends much of his available time editing and rewriting novels for self-published authors.

2 responses »

  1. Sounds interesting. I hate to equate everything to Star Trek (I feel like Sheen in Jimmy Neutron who relates everything to an episode of his comic book hero Ultra Lord ), but episode 60 of STE entitled “Twilight” had Captain Archer loose his long term memory in exactly the same way. Every day, he woke up married to T’Pol and she’d explain things to Archer, who by that time had become an older man. The sex thing was not a big issue, being that T’Pol was Vulcan 😉

    Perhaps this basic story line is no longer new, but writers need to treat it in some way that makes it fresh and interesting. Isn’t that true of everything? People don’t get sick of Zombie stories, so I doubt we’ll get sick of this plot line as long as it’s written well.

    I also found your comment, about using amnesia as a reason to force narrative exposition, quite fascinating. Maybe I’ll try that in some of my work. Just gotta get my characters clunked on the head now and then 🙂

  2. Christopher Lampton

    Amnesia, of course, has been used as a plot device for decades. There have been entire TV shows built around it, like Coronet Blue, and God knows how many movies. But anterograde amnesia is so unusual — I’d never even heard of it until I was in my 20s or 30s — that it’s one of those diseases that gets represented in fiction out of all proportion to its representation in real life. It’s even more over-represented than multiple personality disorder, which nobody even seems to be sure exists in real life. But, hey, it’s a great plot device!

    But Memento was the only use of it that produced a genuine work of narrative art.


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