The Amnesia Clinic
by James Scudamore
Harcourt, 304 pp., $23
When Anthony, the teenaged narrator of The Amnesia Clinic, explains early on that his nickname "Anti" evolved out of an inability to pronounce his own name as a toddler, he ruefully notes, "Just one example of how a perfectly innocent mistake can stay with you forever."
It doesn't take a pilgrimage to the Great Oracle to realize this won't be the only, or even the greatest, mistake made over the course of the novel. Yet this artful coming-of-age-on-the-razor's-edge tale--sentimental and humorous one moment, nightmarish the next--is anything but a rote hurtling toward a foreshadowed conclusion. James Scudamore skillfully weaves a wonderfully complex web of stories and counterstories, telling and retelling climactic events from various perspectives, exposing the fluidity of truth and the retributive nature of reality denied. In The Amnesia Clinic, the fabulist lamb is ultimately never quite able to lie down with the realist lion.
The novel is set in a beautifully rendered Ecuador on the brink of war with Peru. Anti is a hopelessly awkward 15-year-old English transplant befriended by Fabian, a well-off, popular Ecuadorian. "A languid panther to my wheezing albino pig" is Anti's unceremonious summation, but for Fabian, still reeling from the recent death of his parents, the friendship is not charity: "When I first arrived I had a way of staring at perfectly normal things as if I had landed on an alien planet, and Fabian liked provoking it," Anti explains. The English boy's hyper-awareness of his exotic new locale allows Fabian to shift away from agonizing memories by reinventing his life and surroundings into something less painful, more heroic.
Anti quickly becomes an accomplice, acknowledging that "'the truth' was something with which Fabian and I were fairly free." It remains innocent enough at first. "Anything could have happened in that cupboard, couldn't it?" Anti asks Fabian, after the latter brags about a manifestly false schoolhouse sexual conquest.
"You're right," Fabian would say. "Anything could have happened. Anything from full penetrative sex through to a bit of harmless flirting followed by a kick in the balls."
"So on that scale of possibility, what would a really unimaginative person say had happened in that cupboard?"
"The unimaginative person would probably say that he followed Verena into the cupboard hoping to cop a feel, but that she bashed him round the head with a foolscap folder before making him carry about three tons of paper back to the classroom for her. Something like that."
"Quite. How disappointing."
Stakes are raised, though, when Anti learns Fabian's parents died in a car wreck--from which his mother's body was thrown into the Ecuadorian jungle and never found--not by a tragic bullfight goring as he told Anti, hardly a lighthearted fib. Coupled with Fabian's professed vision of his mother's apparition during an earthquake, the stage is set for a collision between what is and what is not.
As excessive as such stories may seem, Anti and Fabian nevertheless see a tacit approval of untruth in their genetic makeup. Fabian describes his father as someone who "tried as he could to be what he thought was a European" by listening to Spanish classical music and trying to dance "the pasadoble like some flamenco expert." And the boy's new guardian, Uncle Suarez, tells his own tall tales, confiding that "I gave up long ago the unfortunate habit of believing the mere plausible."
Meanwhile, Anti's mother, so disapproving of Suarez the fabulist, is nevertheless a "painfully earnest" European woman serving as an academic cheerleader for Ecuadorian indigenas "reclaiming their birthright and redressing centuries of repression." Anti's father, once a former West African correspondent for Reuters, was fired after making up a press release on a slow news day.
The final die is cast when Anti resolves a meaningless quarrel with Fabian not by apology or schoolyard tussle, but with a mock-up newspaper article inventing the Amnesia Clinic and placing clues throughout suggesting Fabian's mother might be a patient there. Anti does so believing he and Fabian have "an unspoken understanding" that "we both knew when things had gone too far from the realm of the plausible."
Not so. Before Anti can get a handle on the unintended consequences, he and Fabian have set out for a rural Ecuadorian village on a quest for the nonexistent care center for the memory challenged.
Anti admits to possessing a cowardice that "can generally be relied upon in any given situation." This attribute acts as an innate self-defense mechanism to keep him from advancing beyond lines, imaginary or otherwise, he is ill-prepared to cross. Unfortunately, en route to the Amnesia Clinic, Anti discovers that Fabian is mixing an all-too-real courage with his self-delusion. Once the boys are off the grid, Fabian descends into an impenetrable and dangerous fantasy world, "showily dodging the obstacles put in his way by reality."
"Didn't you ever wait a few days after buying your lottery ticket before you checked the numbers, just to allow yourself to think you might have won something?" Anti asks Fabian as he gently attempts to reveal the Amnesia Clinic is fiction.
"I don't play the lottery," Fabian answers.
And so the world is encapsulated and divided. Anti's renunciation of the Amnesia Clinic story means nothing to Fabian. Nihilistic survivor guilt and pure desire have transferred ownership of the story into his hands. Anti's naiveté and the callousness of boyhood vie for blame for the ensuing tragedy as he, to his horror, discovers, like Dr. Frankenstein before him, that you cannot always kill the monsters you create. The fantasy is not the same for one as it is for the other.
"Fabian's world was fantastic because it needed to be," Suarez snarls. "What's your excuse?" Call it by the same name, seek it at the same longitude and latitude, it does not matter. An agreed-upon surrender to fantasy often leaves one powerless to earn mercy from reality.
Shawn Macomber is a Phillips Foundation fellow.