IN “A THOUSAND KISSES DEEP,” from his 2001 album Ten New Songs, Leonard Cohen sings, “You live your life as if it’s real.” Most of us rarely question the “reality” of that life — but occasionally cracks reveal themselves in its surface, whether through a nervous breakdown, drug or alcohol abuse, any number of anxiety disorders or mental illnesses, sleep deprivation, or simply stress. Then we understand what contemporary physics and philosophy have been telling us all along. “Reality” is a construct based on the complex interaction between our minds and our perceptions. When we think we understand who we are, we are usually gravely mistaken.
Marcel Proust understood this perhaps better than anyone. In the opening pages of In Search of Lost Time, he ruminates on something most of us take for granted:
[A]nd when I awoke in the middle of the night, not knowing where I was, I could not even be sure at first who I was; I had only the most rudimentary sense of existence, such as may lurk and flicker in the depths of an animal’s consciousness; I was more destitute than the cave-dweller.
Indeed, the subject of all seven volumes of Proust’s masterwork seems to be whether or not we can ever really know who we are. In Proustian thought, memory plays the same supernatural role as grace. His seven-volume novel is a history then — a history of a search for what has been lost. The sleeper is reduced to a state in which he doesn’t know who he is. He doesn’t know because, having lost his memory, he doesn’t know who he has been. Such is the quandary in which David Stuart MacLean finds himself in his intriguing if frustrating memoir, The Answer to the Riddle Is Me.
The book opens with MacLean “waking” into darkness at a train station in India with no idea who he is or why he’s there: “I was standing when I came to. Not lying down. And it wasn’t a gradual waking process. It was darkness darkness darkness, then snap. Me. Now awake.” The allusion to Proust’s sleeper is clear. Only this isn’t fiction, and what follows isn’t so much an immersion in the inner life of the narrator as a harrowing step-by-step depiction of MacLean’s journey back to himself. After a police officer rescues him from the train station, MacLean spends a few disoriented days in a hospital before his parents arrive armed to jog his memory.
There were dozens of photographs, all of them with me somewhere in them. If each photograph represents one sixty-fourth of a second, I held maybe two seconds of my life there in my hands in that hospital bed. Not much in the scheme of things, but at that moment it was everything.
And yet MacLean doesn’t relate to the person he sees in the pictures. With no memories to connect him to the images, he’s adrift, unmoored from the past. Stranger still, he manufactures memories — of people and events — based on his initial experience with the Indian police, in which it was suggested he was a drug addict.
I didn’t know if I should tell my mom about how Christina and I stayed in terrible apartments and shot drugs right into the veins in our arms. I wasn’t sure how much my mom knew. How much I should spare her.
This sort of false recollection — for there is no Christina, and drugs are not his problem — leads to one of the more provocative questions raised in the book. Exactly what is “reality” if it can be created and destroyed so easily?
The early sections of the book engage precisely because the reader gets to watch in real time as MacLean attempts to reconstruct his life and learns with each passing episode how impossible a task it is. Take, for example, the scene where MacLean’s father tries to map out his son’s life on a napkin while sitting at a bar: “The map we ended up with looked like one of the newspapers I’d marked up in the asylum, random arrows chasing each other in an attempt to assert some kind of order.” The scene rings true. How many of us, if we tried to map out our lives, our pasts, would walk away dumbfounded? The arrows would point in too many directions, sometimes even contradictory ones. MacLean charts this terrain well. He returns home with his parents and begins to piece together his identity, examining months of emails and listening to tapes from his days as a college DJ.
I sat between my parents with headphones on, listening. I knew that what I was listening to was at least a partial truth about myself. The person who was talking between the songs was me, but me while I was performing a part.
The idea of life as performance is at least as old as Shakespeare. As Jaques reminds us in As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage” and “one man in his time plays many parts.”But if we are all performing all the time, how to get to the truth of who we are? As promising as so many of these questions are, MacLean never seems to move past their ideation, but keeps circling back, relying on his initial trauma to propel the story forward rather than developing its rich philosophical and psychological implications. By about the midway point, this focus on the personal threatens to bog down writer and reader. What saves the memoir is factual information about malaria and Lariam — an antimalarial drug that MacLean was taking during his time as a Fulbright scholar in India, and which, it seems, was the cause of his amnesia.
MacLean argues against the use of Lariam, a drug invented by the military in the 1970s. He delivers anecdote after anecdote about the dangerous psychological effects of the drug, particularly its effect on US military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the most damning report, and one of the most interesting sections in the book, exposes the military’s use of massive doses of Lariam (five times the prescribed amount) with inmates in Guantanamo.
Guantanamo Bay doesn’t have malaria. Cuba doesn’t have malaria. None of the soldiers or contractors working at the base were prescribed anything for malaria. Not to mention, why would you give someone a massive dose of any drug before you knew whether or not they had the disease you were treating for them?
The answer seems to be that the drug was used as a form of psychological torture, giving us a glimpse back to our grim immediate-post-9/11 past, a collective memory we would perhaps prefer to forget. MacLean’s investigation into the history and science of Larium adds much-needed perspective and depth to the book, an outer landscape that helps contextualize his inner turmoil.
Meanwhile, as the story continues, it becomes increasingly clear that MacLean is slowly piecing together a self whom he doesn’t much desire to know. “I wanted to not be the guy in the pictures,”he writes. We learn that he may have been cheating on his girlfriend (and certainly had cheated on others in the past), and that he has a distinct drinking problem. What happens when we don’t like the evidence of who we are? It is the tension between the need to discover the self and the simultaneous need to turn away from that self that drives the second half of the book. When it works, MacLean creates a portrait of self-loathing, of a man who may have been trying to deny any trace of who he was even before the Lariam did it for him:
In the life I had woken up to, I found that I was often split between who I was and who I wanted to be. I grew up in small-town Ohio, but I wanted to be a world traveler; I went to small unheralded schools, but I wanted to compete with the country’s best academics for a Fulbright scholarship; I was dating Anne, but I wanted to be the kind of guy who dated someone like Geeta.
Faced with the contradiction between who he apparently is and who he wants to be, MacLean tries even harder not simply to erase his past but to erase his life. After being warned about the deadly effects of combining alcohol with OxyContin, he proceeds to do exactly that: “I took three of the Oxys, drank a bottle of wine, and had a tsunami-sized panic attack.” In these moments — lost and fearful as he is — his anxiety is palpable.
And even so, MacLean’s memoir falls short of its promise. Just as he grants us access to his genuine vulnerability, he pulls away again, resorting either to vapid pronouncements, as when he breaks up with Geeta, his Indian girlfriend: “I needed the world to be stable. I needed people to be simple and trustworthy” — isn’t this what we all need all the time? — or falling into self-pity, as when he confesses to his father that he feels like a virus who leeches off others. His father cheers him up by reminding him of his talent as a street performer: “You called me after the first time you did it, and you’d made enough money to go drinking on; you had a big crowd of people, strangers, and they were all laughing at you and your friend.” If the story helps MacLean, for the reader it seems a cheap substitute for serious reflection. In moments like these, MacLean settles for easy answers as opposed to taking responsibility for his story and himself.
Unfortunately, the ending takes a similar tack. MacLean makes only a couple of passing literary references in the book, so his choice to conclude with a scene from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby feels lazy and somewhat contrived. He chooses the scene, toward the end of the novel, at Gatsby’s party, when Nick spends the evening looking for his host, only to find he is sitting next to him. MacLean reads this in relation to his attempt to regain his sense of self:
You fight and search and fight and search, and when you give up, you find yourself sitting next to what you’ve been looking for. And it recognizes you before you recognize it.
This is a long way of going about saying that I was, of course, sitting right next to him the whole time. Me, I mean. I was sitting right next to me the whole time.
But having asked so many interesting questions about identity, having pointed to the arbitrary nature of reality, it’s as if MacLean means for Fitzgerald to do the heavy lifting, as if MacLean’s riddle could be easily solved and tied up in a proverbial bow. Of course, the title of the book clues us in ahead of time. In fact, both the title and the ending feel like they’ve been provided by the publisher’s marketing department. The book deserves better. And so do we.
Like MacLean, Cohen’s “A Thousand Kisses Deep” takes us to the precipice of what constitutes reality. But with a nod to Robert Frost, Cohen goes one step further:
You lose your grip, and then you slip
Into the masterpiece.
And maybe I had miles to drive,
And promises to keep:
You ditch it all to stay alive,
A thousand kisses deep.
How easy it is for all of us to slip from one self to another. It’s the work of our lives, over and over again in the face of the slippage, to try and figure out who we are. The anguish of living lies in our yearning for a fixity from which we are forever detached. But the answer MacLean provides to the riddle of existence assumes false permanence rather than acknowledging the perpetual changes that make all of us, from moment to moment, strangers to ourselves.
An award-winning novelist, Peter Grandbois has been shortlisted for both the Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays. He’s an associate editor at Boulevard magazine and teaches at Denison University in Ohio.