Marcel Proust, the great author of memory, gets a swift kick in the pants in Dan Simmons' latest novel of an apocalyptic future, "Flashback" (Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown: 560 pp., $27.99). 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 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 (or 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 Southern California 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. streetkids known as a "flashgang" (they remind this reviewer of "A Clockwork Orange's" droogs). One of the gang, Val, happens to be Bottoms' 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 Islam 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.
Simmons doesn't play with the memory-vs-reality theme like Philip K. Dick; 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.
You might even trace the lineage of Simmons' flashback users to Tennyson's lotos-eaters and the story as it was told in Homer's "Odyssey." And come to think of it, let's include the English Romantic poets even though they yearned for a different kind of oblivion — didn't they wish to avoid the pains of the present with a cup filled with the waters of Lethe, the fabled underworld river that washes souls clean?
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."
Other books not to miss this summer
"Buddha Standard Time: Awakening to the Infinite Possibilities of Now" by Lama Surya Das (HarperOne: 215 pp., $25.99)
Lama Surya Das wants us to "make peace with time." What does that mean? The hectic pace of daily life grips so many of us around the throat for a simple reason: We allow it. Find a center of calmness, maintain it and that grip will loosen. I know this book may sound like a thousand other ones, and, you might ask, why bother if you've already read Thich Nhat Hanh or Ken Wilber or Pema Chodron or the teachings of the Buddha? But I'd counter your question with another one: Why do people read more than one book about the Christian saints or about the Torah? The subject doesn't change, but each author's perspective is different. Every author offers fresh angles, which is what Lama Surya Das does: He asks us to rediscover things around us and over our heads — the sky, for instance, or the ability to sit still and smile. The only thing I find it difficult to maintain a Zen attitude toward is reading this summer: There are far too many interesting books and not enough time for all of them.
"The Statues That Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island" by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo (Free Press: 237 pp., $26)
Stonehenge is only one of many lithic mysteries dotting the globe. The giant stone faces of Easter Island are another famous example. How, the authors of this new book ask, did those "gargantuan statues … called moai" manage to get "transported several miles over the island's rugged terrain"? And why do they face inward, they muse, as if they are "gazing back in a vain search for the noble society that created them"? The authors use their anthropological/archeological know-how to delve into the island's past. They describe a once-vibrant culture and religion, involving a cult of statue-making, and this leads them to another difficult question: If the ancient peoples living on Easter Island were part of an incredible society, what happened to them?
"The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities" edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer (Harper Voyager: 320 pp., $22.99)
The indefatigable VanderMeers, Ann and Jeff (who reviews for our pages from time to time), have assembled another anthology of some of the most interesting fantasist-fabulists writing today, such as Holly Black, Ted Chiang, Garth Nix, Carrie Vaughn and Naomi Novik. The conceit is that each story and illustration contributes — like shards from a shattered mirror — to our understanding of the late Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead, an exquisite, esoteric (and non-existent) collector nonpareil. Thus, illustrations by artists including "Hellboy's" Mike Mignola give us his contraptions like the clockroach — a steam-powered machine "that looked like a big bug, or a lobster, or something," Cherie Priest explains — and stories like Jeffrey Ford's "Relic," which pay homage to the bizarre, visceral curiosities Lambshead collected. In Ford's case, a holy item happens to be "a dark lumpen object, its skin like that of an overripe banana. There were toes and even orange, shattered toenails." It's enough to make you go "Yecch," but in a good way.
Owchar is Times deputy book editor. The Siren's Call appears monthly at http://www.latimes.com/books.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times