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REMEMBER THISWISH FOR AMNESIA
by Barbara Rosenthal
Deadly Chaps Press.   2017. 287 pps. $15
This book took the better of four decades to write. It took Tolstoy six years to write “War and Peace,” a novel five times as long. With that news, your first thought of course is this better be good.
“Wish for Amnesia,” by multimedia artist Barbara Rosenthal, is extraordinary. The plot in outline is compelling. Its prime mover is Jack Rubin, the flawed messiah who makes a big mark as a consummate leader of the 1960s American student rebellion and eventually wins an Olympian position from an entire grateful world. He acquires a mentor and lover, a black artist and blind seer named Beatrice; a wife, dabbling artist Caroline; and a daughter, star-child prodigy Jewel.
The story opens with a Jewish couple's daring escape from a deathbound Nazi train and ends, in the l980s, on an ambivalently hopeful note aboard a jetliner over Italy. Forty odd years yield scenes of twisted childhood friendship, a trip to a drug store, a party. Dotting the narrative are entries from journals, internal monologues, mock-pulls from real newspapers, bone-spare photographs by the author herself. There are exactly four scenes of disruptive action, a bad car wreck, an almost drowning, an almost docile rape and a climactic episode of multiplied violence.
The thematic conception is classic. The protagonists bear a Jovian flawed god-likeness, or at the least a perilously top-heavy nobility. The heart of the tale seems to be a tracking of how greatness and a perversely grand crassness vie for dominance within chosen characters through spanning generations. Cathartically, Jewel, the physically corrupted near innocent and the last of her line, holds out the one dubious promise of redemption.
The author's formal signature is a methodical, detached application of dense and minute detail of flora and fauna, coating virtually every action undertaken, by every character, line after line. The touch is much more than the standard picture painting of a diligent novelist's imagination. It weaves a loom--veiled to characters, naked to the reader--of finespun hard-steel cable that conducts unwitting subjects to their mysterious and ineluctable ends, a hermetic prison of fate.
Not to leave unmentioned is one scene of a blind adult suddenly regaining her sight whose clinical precision and vertiginous pace combine into one of the most astounding passages of English prose you'll ever read.
But there's more. Rosenthal has been semi-privately talking up a behind-the-lines pattern of interlocking incidents and images with which she has mined the length of the story that both tightens the tale's unities and throws into question--despite its profuse, microscopic hyper-naturalism-- the reality of the tale itself.
This reviewer confesses that this pattern completely eluded him. It also escaped the fine detection of a couple of The Smartest People I Know, to whom I personally assigned the book for that sole purpose. This is the quality that takes “Wish for Amnesia” from the merely brilliant to the root-and-branch reinventive. If a moth flutters past a character's face in chapter 1, you can bet that moth or its like will reappear in a later chapter to seal what should now be clear was the fraught harbingering of the first moth.
Or consider the kinship of fancy fountain pens across pages. Or the trans-literary tie between this book's loft bed and another from a children's classic. Or the “Flying Nun” of Hollywood and a literal flying nun within the plot. Or the more familiar ploy of the gun in a drawer that every manual of dramatic writing ensures will reappear to be fired before the story's end.
You'll probably miss it all. But if somehow you don't, you may not be sure exactly what the harbinger was in a literal sense, but you'll feel the resonance of its beating wings on your own skin, sure that the words that explain it all will eventually visit in a revelatory burst.
This well veiled, richly tapestried infrastructure of “puzzles” (Rosenthal's word) finds few literary precedents apparent to this reviewer (maybe, in smaller part, Joyce or the postwar nouveau roman French fictionalists). Rosenthal herself likens it to “pilpul,” classic Jewish exegesis that similarly links seemingly small elements from one end of the Pentateuch to the other. (What's the cosmic connection between the olive branch in the beak of Noah's dove and the olive oil in the flour mix for Moses' Tabernacle sacrifices? Trust me, it's there, somewhere in the voluminous commentaries.) For both traditional and secular Jews like Rosenthal, then, God is indeed in the details. The upshot is that the world is both too much with us and, as the author engineers it, potentially self-obliterating. It's in the title. We wish for amnesia, to build a new world on the chimerical back of the world forgotten. A perfect conceit for our post-quantum world.
There are bones to pick. The mad-prophetic Jack Rubin, a latter day Da Vinci meets Tom Hayden meets Abbie Hoffman meets Gandhi meets Albert Einstein and an indefinable more, is exactly the person the 60s utopian left should have produced but somehow never did. Yet Rosenthal doesn't really spell out what exalted him to his supreme leader status in the countercultural first place.
Caroline, the shallow, gratuitously cruel wife and mother, is the weakest personality and hence makes the weakest character. In turn, her signature cloak of detail, though as profuse as that of the others, with their equally flawed but much more grandiose spirits, is by far the least compelling. This may be exactly as the author intended, but to the reader it comes off as a free fall from a whacked-out but thrilling Valhalla to a drab and disappointing boiler room of an underworld.
An attack of spectral harpies in an abandoned farmhouse is less “magic realism” than a vivid, old-fashioned cut of H. P. Lovecraft mimicry, but it makes a strange fit inside the high-photorealist text. Similarly, the paranoidal admonitory voices that beset Jack Rubin's brain register as a somewhat arbitrary device that beg more fleshing out.
But against the far larger artistry Rosenthal has fashioned, these blips recede into the critical shadows. If anything, “Wish for Amnesia” may be a bit of a victim of its own sweeping ambitions. Speaking of Tolstoyan, the mentions virtually in passing of Jack's work on terrestrial and alien DNA alone is worth eight to twelve chapters. Merely building on a few of several such tantalizing sub-premises, the reader can easily envision a novel several times its present length.
On the other hand, Rosenthal's (approximately) forty years of wandering in her literary desert gave her and us this much, a luxuriantly rich stream of milk and honey in a verbal land, it seems, less than promised than tricklingly but pointedly rolled her way.
It's not beyond imagining that once “Wish for Amnesia” earns its popular legs—and it should—it spawns its own reading clubs whose sole premise is to divine out the author's embedded mesh of “puzzles” and pick out their meanings. That'll blow out a few mental cobwebs across the land. Don't spare the brandy.