By Blake Crouch
Lately, I’ve traveled through the wormhole of paranormal podcasts, ones that focus on the impossible and uncanny. Some of the best include “Astonishing Legends,” “Mysterious Universe” and “MonsterTalk.” The granddaddy of such podcasts is “Coast to Coast AM.” On these fine shows I’ve learned about the Bell Witch, an entity that terrorized a family in Tennessee in the 1800s; Disappearing Object Phenomenon, which explains why common objects tend to go missing in one’s home; and, of course, the “Nazi Werewolf Organization.”
I’m sure there are listeners, probably many, who believe everything described in these podcasts, and some who claim to have experienced them. I don’t and I haven’t. I’m a skeptic, though not quite an unbeliever — yet that doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of these shows. They often have the feel of friends sitting at a bar, or gathered around a campfire, trading spooky stories to pass the time. That’s the fun of it, really: You think that was wild, listen to this!
All of which is to say I was in the perfect state of mind to pick up Blake Crouch’s “Recursion,” a heady campfire tale of a novel built for summer reading.
There are two central characters: Barry Sutton, an N.Y.P.D. detective, and Helena Smith, a neuroscientist in Palo Alto who studies memory. The book opens with Barry being called to the Upper West Side to help a woman threatening suicide at the Poe Building. The woman, Ann, suffers from a condition called false memory syndrome in which people think that they are living the wrong life, that another timeline of existence has been overwritten in order for them to live a new one. Think of it as erasing a drawing on a sheet of paper and starting a new one on the same sheet: The trace of the old image remains; you can’t unsee it. The discrepancy between the two drives sufferers mad, turns them suicidal.
Ann is a single investment banker, but she also remembers being a married woman who ran a landscaping business in Vermont; the couple had a 9-year-old son, Sam; she’s sure of it. But none of that ever happened. They’re all false memories. So why does she clearly recall Sam’s laugh, the birthmark on his left cheek, his first day of school? She jumps to her death because she can’t live with the loss of that phantom child. Barry, witnessing her leap, wonders if Sam really was a false memory, or if something else is going on.
Cut to Helena, in her lab more than a decade earlier, in 2007, “examining the image of a mouse’s memory of being afraid — fluorescently illuminated neurons interconnected by a spider web of synapses.” Because her mother suffers from severe memory loss, Helena’s goal is to invent a special chair that will save Mom and, by extension, so many others from this fate. The invention itself seems dauntingly far-off, though, “light-years away.” In short, she doesn’t have any funding, the eternal scientific hurdle.
But then a stranger appears in her office. He knows all about her chair and why no other entities are ever going to fund it. “Because what you really want is bank-breaking. You don’t need seven figures. You need nine. Maybe 10. You need a team of coders to help you design an algorithm for complex memory cataloging and projection. The infrastructure for human trials.” This man works for someone who will give her exactly that — all the money and support in the world. Helena is hooked.
Some of the novel’s most rewarding tension is created as the reader anticipates how Helena’s invention will lead to Barry and Ann at the Poe Building. Barry’s and Helena’s stories do eventually collide, but the journey is a gloriously twisting line that regularly confounded my expectations.
I’m loath to say much about where this novel ends up, but suffice to say the memory chair will be built and used — and that false memory syndrome ends up being the tamest of its side effects.
There’s a faint political undercurrent to the novel. False memory syndrome is first reported in 2016. A character on CNN says: “If memory is unreliable, if the past and the present can simply change without warning, then fact and truth will cease to exist. How do we live in a world like that?”
Maybe, finally, this is why I love those paranormal podcasts, and why I enjoyed “Recursion” so much. Those shows are often dismissed as fringe programming, and novels like this one damned as frivolous entertainment, but I believe they capture the disquiet of millions; they broadcast at an anxious frequency. The sense that our country’s center is not holding pulses through the novel. The fear that we are losing our collective memory, of a stable nation for instance, doesn’t read to me like fantasy.
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