June 1957, an atomic test in Nevada (“comic book doomsday”); May 2000, a man, thirty-something Columbia University literature professor Samson Greene, is found wandering alone in the desert… in Nevada. Far from his affluent Manhattan home, amnesiac Greene has somehow ended up dazed, confused, and diagnosed with a brain lesion, which is excised. With the surgery goes all Greene’s memory after age 12. Back in New York, Samson is suddenly half-a-man who can’t even remember Anna, his bewildered wife. It’s the “dream life” of someone who has “forgotten his entire biography.”
Failed stabs at reconstructing the past lead Samson on a road trip to California where he agrees to participate in top-secret project intent on “finding a way to transfer memories,” according to its God-playing chief Ray Malcolm, whose voice, to Samson, is “as mesmerizing and intimate as a midnight disc jockey.” Where is the project located? Bunkers in the Nevada desert of course.
Krauss displays vivid empathy for her man Samson, but his near-omniscient sensibility makes disbelief hard to suspend. Samson, observes Ray, has “a sophisticated sense of the world.” That’s putting it mildly. “[Samson] imagined Anna’s memories of himself transferred into his mind: to feel what it was to be her remembering him. To experience what is was to remember himself.”
Krauss’s debut novel (a fable, really) is a generously speculative rumination about the meaning of memory, and of the past itself. (“The life she was trying to return to him he didn’t want,” Samson says of Anna’s efforts to help him recall their marital bliss — and a dog named Frank.)
Her use of wild science to prod revelation is ground that fellow New Yorker Paul Auster has plowed effectively for decades. Samson is a feminine version of one of Auster’s crusty Brooklynites. The line “A man walks into room…” is usually used to open a joke. While Samson is no joke, he’s too often in the thrall of his own predicament.