This weekend’s Burlington Book Festival will showcase plenty of familiar faces on the Vermont literary scene, plus a few out-of-state luminaries such as Joyce Carol Oates. This year, though, organizer Rick Kisonak has made a special effort to include some authors from over the border in Anglophone Montréal.
One worth a special look is Jeffrey Moore, whose novel The Memory Artists can only be described as “postmodern.” It’s also funny and accessible enough that British film producer Jonathan Cavendish (Bridget Jones’s Diary) plans to adapt it to the big screen.
Moore won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Novel for Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain (2000) and the 2005 Canadian Authors Association Award for The Memory Artists, his second work. That novel broaches the hot-button issue of Alzheimer’s — and the questions it raises about memory and the workings of the mind. Protagonist Noel Burun’s mother, only 58, is starting to show heartbreaking signs of the disease. Noel, in an irony not lost on him, is gifted with a photographic memory. He’s also a synaesthete, meaning that his brain processes one sort of sensory input via another — in Noel’s case, he “sees” sounds as color.
Meanwhile, loner Noel’s one friend, Norval Blaquière, has made a small bet to sleep with 26 women in 26 weeks in alphabetical order of their first names (the Alpha Bet). He’s stalled at “S.” His next prey could be either Noel’s mother, Stella, or the beautiful Arabic-Canadian one-time film starlet Samira Darwish, who has memory problems of her own.
Yet another quirky character in The Memory Artists is Jean-Jacques Yelle, a teddy-bearish eBay addict who lives in the junk heap formerly known as the Montréal cemetery gatehouse.
Pause here for a big breath and a paranoid look over your shoulder. These five characters come together not by accident but through the machinations of a certain Dr. Emile Vorta, a neuropsychologist at the University of Québec. Like a Wicked Witch of the North rubbing his hands together delightedly, Vorta declares in the novel’s Foreword that combining these particular people has proved no less potent than “throwing five volatile compounds into a beaker and coming up with a miracle drug.”
Vorta, an obvious author stand-in, becomes a fully rounded character through the interplay between what the fab five say about him and what he says about them, in 60 footnotes. Expect your reading experience to be interactive, with lots of flipping back and forth.
How would Moore rate his own memory, on a scale of Stella to Noel? “I’m halfway,” the author avers, emailing between meetings with producer Cavendish at the Toronto Film Festival. “But things will no doubt slide from there. And since there’s a genetic component to the disease, I could be a good candidate for it.” Moore’s father died of Alzheimer’s; his mother was beginning to suffer from memory loss when she was killed by a reckless driver while crossing the street. Moore adds, “A cure, though, is probably a decade away, tops.”
Meanwhile, in flagrant disregard of his character Norval’s opinion that “authors should be read and not heard,” Moore will read from his novel this Saturday. What kinds of experiments will the postmodern trickster conduct on his unsuspecting Burlington audience? “Two things to watch for,” he writes. “A visual re-enactment of something colossally embarrassing that happened to me at a reading in Paris; and a quick quiz of the audience to see who suffers from synesthesia (in mild cases, people sometimes don’t even know they have it, or that the condition has a name).”
The Memory Artists by Jeffrey Moore. St. Martin's Griffin, 336 pages. $13.95.
Jeffrey Moore will read from his novel on September 15 at the Burlington Book Festival, Waterfront Theatre Great Room, Third Floor, 11:30-12:30 p.m.