Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown: 560 pp., $27.99
Marcel Proust, the great author of memory, gets a swift kick in the pants in Dan Simmons' latest novel of an apocalyptic future, "Flashback." Remember all that stuff Proust wrote about memories returning to him with the taste of a madeleine cookie? For Simmons, memories can be summoned and controlled far more easily, and reliably, with a few snorts of a drug called flashback.
In this novel, most Americans — about 85% — are hooked on flashback, preferring to spend their days in soiled clothes on grimy cots, reliving the cozy past rather than facing a chaotic world.
Simmons' portrait of the near-future presents a bankrupt United States that has been chopped into pieces. There are lawless frontier areas and zones of federally protected territory; people pour across the border from Mexico, while the Canadians have erected a wall along theirs; armed enclaves battle over cities; Texas is a republic again; Muslim extremist groups are proliferating; and there's even a mosque standing on ground zero in New York City. So who would blame Americans for this addiction? Taking a hit of flashback is a welcome escape from reality.
At the novel's center is Nick Bottom, a former cop whose parents must've appreciated Shakespeare. Maybe they had no idea they were naming him after the hapless "Midsummer Night's Dream" character. Nick is a grieving widower and flashback addict (these, by the way, are related). He's been hired to thaw a cold case for Hiroshi Nakamura, a wealthy, powerful Japanese businessman living on an armed Los Angeles hillside area once occupied by the Getty Center. Despite his millions, he's never been able to find out who murdered his documentary filmmaker son Keigo in Denver. Why turn to a miserable, addled detective for help? Because Bottom was involved in the original investigation.
"I'm the only person who can, under the flash, relive every conversation with the witnesses and suspects and other detectives involved," he realizes.
It's an intriguing spin on the detective story trope. Simmons is a consummate master of intriguing spins, shifting between time periods and situations more gracefully than a chameleon changes colors. In recent books he has explored a doomed 19th century expedition to find the Northwest Passage in "The Terror," the world of Charles Dickens in "Drood" and Custer's defeat at the Little Big Horn in "Black Hills." Now, with "Flashback," Simmons gives us a noirish thriller set in a grim, broken future where the only relief comes from a drug.
"There's nothing in the 'verse like flashing after wasting somebody" — that's the motto of a violent group of L.A. street kids known as a "flashgang" (they remind this reviewer of "A Clockwork Orange's" droogs). One of the gang, Val, happens to be Bottom's estranged son: He lives with his retired professor grandfather Leonard (Bottom's father-in-law) in a city trembling under the "reconquista" attacks of "spanic" militias who want to return the region to Mexico's control. Simmons choreographs their escape from L.A. along with Bottom's investigation at the crime scene in Denver — and we sense a reunion even if we can't guess how it will happen.
As Bottom probes Keigo's murder — his documentary was about flashback addiction — he willingly torments himself with memories of his happy life with his beautiful, loving wife, Dara … and slowly, very slowly, he realizes her death in a car accident may be tied with Keigo's murder. An assistant to a Denver assistant D.A., Dara had been working on a case she was never able to discuss with her husband. Her secrecy never bothered Bottom before; now it troubles him constantly.
Murder plots, conspiracy and global meltdown are a lot to handle, but if you've ever read Simmons before, you know that he's adept at constructing immense, complicated frameworks, and "Flashback" is no exception. The big picture Simmons envisions, and that Bottom faces, partly involves a looming war with a resurgent Islamic caliphate and the lulling of the United States to sleep with flashback. Who's behind this treachery is a shocker — and won't be revealed here.
Though you certainly can classify this novel under the science fiction banner, Simmons doesn't play with the memory-versus-reality theme as Philip K. Dick does; in the end, in fact, he's much closer to that lyrical devourer of madeleines, Proust. Even if their approaches are radically different, they share a common theme: Life is so full of disappointment, and time moves so swiftly, that memory enables us to recapture those special, transcendent moments in our lives. And to help us forget.
Ah, sweet oblivion. You can't blame Bottom for wanting to forget the present, for wanting to lose himself in a dream, whether on a midsummer's night or otherwise. Still, he makes one more discovery late in the story that provides him with a way to forsake the drug and live in the present. It's a simple lesson that would easily fit on a slip of paper tucked into a fortune cookie (skip the madeleine): "You can't have life without pain. … Being alive means having the strength to face pain and loss."