In her absorbing and timely novel Confessions of a Memory Eater, Pagan Kennedy explores love, addiction, and memory in the pharmaceutical age. Her hero is a professor at a small New Hampshire college named Win Duncan, who feels dissatisfied with his passionless marriage and drained of energy and ambition, even about his pet project — a book about 19th-century writer Thomas De Quincey. As Duncan remarks, ”I had begun to suspect I did not belong in my own life.” Enter cagey Phil Litminov, Duncan’s grad-school buddy, whose ”voracious appetite for trouble” has recently found a more entrepreneurial outlet. Now the owner of a pharmaceutical company, Litminov has access to a wonder drug that works like total-recall LSD: Take a pill and you can spend two hours reliving any memory you choose. Phil recruits Duncan to test the drug — dubbed Mem — which turns Duncan from a hesitant guinea pig into a psychological addict.
In tight, lucid prose, Kennedy presents a character whose past is constantly present. Duncan speaks of ”sub-selves,” referring to ”Win-6” or ”Win-41” to indicate his age in Mem-induced reveries. Duncan’s drug experiences resemble those of De Quincey, whose damning treatise on recreational opium use ironically popularized the narcotic. ”He was lonely,” Duncan muses. ”And so he set out to bring readers into his addiction with him.” This becomes one of Duncan’s goals, too: After Mem nearly tears his life apart, he addresses the reader as his ”drug buddy.” But Kennedy deftly avoids memoir-of-addiction clichés by focusing on Duncan’s analysis of his experience, rather than belaboring his desperation.
In fewer than 200 pages, Confessions packs an allegorical wallop, going so far as to invoke the controversies over euthanasia and medical marijuana. Even after Duncan has overcome his addiction to Mem, he concedes that the drug might mitigate the pain of terminally ill patients: ”Death can be a place you already know, an oblivion as familiar as the TV room in the house where you grew up. It does not have to hurt.” Through demonstrative images like this, Confessions addresses weighty themes without becoming overbearing.
Rather than making moral judgments about drugs, Kennedy cannily shakes up the debate at each turn. When Duncan is devastated to learn that his wife does not share his vision of their marriage’s happiest memories, Confessions manages to question the sovereignty of memory itself. What if reliving the best moments of our lives, Kennedy asks, entails recalling someone else’s pain? When it comes to living in our memories, the ends may be just as deceptive as the means.