Bethany C. Morrow's Mem is a story about memories made into flesh.
You know that feeling you get when you start to read a novel with an opening that is full of promise and then realize, about fifty pages in, that you are in for a big letdown, that your hopes for a great story that will match what you loved about the book’s beginning will be dashed?
Yeah. Mem is that kind of book. A brilliant beginning, a beginning that might have spawned a story as memorable as the title, gives way to a tale with such limited impact, and which is (sadly) flawed in such an obvious way, that the brilliance of the beginning is ultimately obscured. This is an awful shame, not only because the author, Bethany C. Morrow, is incredibly talented, but because the idea at the center of Mem is wonderful as well.
Mem was favorably reviewed in Kirkus and made some best of lists when it came out, and it has garnered plenty of positives on Goodreads, but the focus of most of these reviews seems to be the setup, not the execution of the story, and there is a reason for that—because there is hardly a story here. Not much of one at all, in fact.
The setup itself is something to be praised: set at the beginning of the 20th century in an alternate version of Montreal, Mem introduces us to a professor with towering talents who figures out a way to extract memories from Sources (men and women who choose to undergo a mysterious procedure called Extraction) and give those memories life. The Mems, as they’re called, are the living embodiment of a painful or pleasant memory; made of flesh and blood, the Mems reside, almost exclusively, in the Vault, a sort of sanctuary slash dormitory that also serves as a laboratory space where the Professor can study his creations. All of the Mems but one have limited cognitive facilities, and they aren’t thought of as people; aside from reliving the memories they embody, they can’t interact in meaningful ways with others and they don’t seem to do anything but eat and stare into space most of the time.
Elsie is a Mem who is different. She seems to be an individual, although all of her memories and most of what she knows are based on what her Source, Dolores, had experienced until the day of her first Extraction. Elsie has been allowed to live outside of the Vault for nearly twenty years, and in that time, she has made friends and made a somewhat limited life for herself, an ordinary life; she is hampered by her status as a Mem, a non-person (although she doesn’t seem in any way not to be a person), but she is, on the whole, happy—until she is recalled, for a reason that isn’t immediately clear, back to the Vault.
Aside from the introduction of Bankers who are sort of the supervisors of the Mems in the Vault and the fact that Sources can “reprint” new memories over the existing Mems, cleansing their minds of the memories already extracted, there aren’t any other explanations or explorations of the process of Extraction or the technology behind it. And that’s fine; this isn’t science fiction, it’s speculative fiction, and it’s best not to ask too many questions about the How since the Why of Extraction is as relevant today as it would have been a century ago, a Why that has been explored in other books and movies, since we all have painful memories we carry with us that we would like, at some point, to get rid of.
So what’s the story? Elsie has been recalled to the Vault to be reprinted, which will erase her identity and all that she remembers of her Source and of herself. That’s the conflict. Just that. There is a romantic subplot involving a Banker tethered to three scenes late in the book, a subplot which contributes to a far too pat ending, and there are intimations of a struggle between the Professor and the Sources who want control over their Mems, but that’s really all there is to it. Elsie spends a lot of time worrying and waiting, but aside from visiting her Source and her Source’s husband, she never does anything that furthers the plot, which is so barebones as to be virtually nonexistent. Elsie is as passive a main character as you will ever meet, which is odd, given that this could have been an empowering story.
It has been said that Mem is “literary” speculative fiction, or that the story has a literary flavor, but there’s no basis for applying the literary label to this book. Does Mem explore certain themes in a literary fashion, using its characters and/or its prose to delve into the topic of memory, to tell us something about the faculty of memory that we’d forgotten or didn’t already know? No, it doesn’t. In fact, where the topic of memory is concerned, Mem does an awful lot of describing and relating and only a little investigation, and what investigation there is is limited to a single facet of memory, that memories are linked tangentially, via the senses, a la Proust. That’s as far as Morrow gets.
The characters are equally disappointing. Not only is Elsie passive, as I said, but as an observer, she doesn’t “see” in a way that makes her position or her personality seem unique. Her revelation, if you can call it that, concerning “modern” life—that we exist in a state of deadly, meaningless chaos—isn’t revelatory at all, and it’s hard to think of any opinion she holds that sets her apart or makes her a force majeure for the story. She is as tepid as a cup of cold tea, and the characters she interacts with aren’t fleshed out in a way that she can be reflected in them or be changed substantially by her contact with them. I would argue that there isn’t a single memorable character in the entire book.
And that leads to the next inevitable question. Could you make the argument that this is a character driven story, that the plot is secondary and therefore almost irrelevant? Well, if the characters demonstrated in any way their depth or that they had changed by the end of the tale, sure, we could, but none of them do, not even Elsie, the main character. Aside from recounting her own and her Source’s memories, she never delves into herself or shows any interest in becoming more than what she is, and what she does happen to learn about herself (a spoiler to the choppy, abrupt ending, so I will not spell it out) is so one dimensional as to be almost laughable.
Does Mem dive into the differences between the lives of women at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries? A little, but only incidentally, and only in service to the situation Elsie finds herself in, as a Mem whose freedom is circumscribed by the wishes and wiles of her Source. In fact, aside from her awareness of her own status as a Mem, Elsie’s opinions about men and women are highly conventional, almost as if they were cut from a women’s magazine printed at the turn of the 20th century.
So the literary label does not apply. And even where the prose is concerned, there are problems. Yes, it does sparkle in the beginning, but in the second half of the book, it is often wooden or stilted, and is occasionally ridiculous (“He took two long strides…and I let out something resembling a horse’s whinny”). Once you’ve read past the first fifty pages, it often seems as if Morrow is struggling to get the sound and feel of the last century down on the page, which would be all right if she hadn’t committed herself to recreating this version of Montreal that she is so in love with. And although there are passages of description that are lovely, they are just that—descriptive passages, a bit like travelogues—and they are just as passive as the main character, incapable of creating any tension or conflict in this story.
Because that is what is missing most of all in Mem. Tension. Conflict. A reason to care about the characters in this story. A reason to continue reading.
I wanted to like this book; I looked forward to reading it as soon as it came to my attention, but Mem is deeply flawed, a fact that may go unnoticed for a while because it managed, by some sort of alignment of the stars, to garner some very positive (though appreciably vague) reviews when it was published in 2018. Morrow has since moved on to the Young Adult genre, which is also a shame, since she has the chops to tackle adult speculative fiction and to make a real mark in the field. Unfortunately, Mem is not where she will make that mark; once the spin machine tied to its release stops spinning, there is a very good chance that Mem will simply fade away.