Sunday, May 8, 2011

Conspiracy and the Persistence of Memory


They say we gain wisdom with age... and, although that seems like a no-brainer (for how could anyone
not gain wisdom, knowledge, etc., the more years lived and the more experiences had?), I suspect the reason behind the oft-repeated platitude is two-fold. 
First, it’s no doubt intended to cheer us up. Waking up each day with another twinge or crick--even as we observe our mental capacities and physical abilities gradually diminishing and going the way of the dodo bird--is hardly encouraging. We need something positive to cling to, so, by golly, wisdom it is.
The second reason--while related to the first--is a bit more organic, I suspect. The bigger truth may be that we truly need such reminders, because, under the best of circumstances, we really don’t have a handle on what goes on in our brains. 
Author Matt Richtel doesn't go the wisdom route; instead, he paints a fascinating and terrifying picture of what may lie in wait for all of us, in Devil’s Plaything.
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Nathaniel “Nat” Idle is probably a fairly typical twenty-first-century San Franciscan (if such a thing may be said). In his mid-thirties and single, with a small apartment, beat-up car, and one cat (Hippocrates) to his name, Nat lives a modest existence, complete with a link to pervasive Silicon Valley. After having come to the realization a few years earlier that life as a doctor sounded way too rote-assembly-line-boring for his adventurous and inquisitive spirit, he quit med school and bounced around a bit, until he eventually landed his current position as a medical blogger (for which he reports on trends, breakthroughs, and other bits of medical interest via thrice-daily, online snippets).
His life is a rather solitary one, though. He has only a few friends and no steady love interest (although the latter is something he’d like to change). His parents, to whom he isn’t particularly close, live in another state. There is, actually, only one person whom he’s always cared deeply about--his grandma, Elana “Lane” Idle.
Despite the generational gulch between the pair, they share a similar sense of humor and intellectual curiosity about the world around them, and have spent a good deal of time together, telling stories and sharing secrets. Nat has never really given much thought to Grandma Lane’s age; she’s been a steady presence in his life for as long as he can remember. 
But, time marches on, and even those “constants” have a way of changing on us.
For some time, Grandma Lane has been living happily in the pleasant and well-run retirement home, Magnolia Manor. Recently, though, Nat has started noticing a marked decline in her recall of memories and her ability to hold conversations--a striking decrease even for an octogenarian. Following a battery of tests, he receives the unwelcome news: his grandma is in the early-to-mid stages of dementia.
As a journalist (and one with a medical background, at that), he takes the news and starts doing what comes naturally to him--researching the latest studies, talking to experts in the field, and looking into possible treatments. He also decides to write a story about Lane, interviewing her while she still has enough lucid spells to make such an endeavor possible.
As it happens, he isn’t the only one to have that idea. For the past few months, Grandma Lane--along with several other Magnolia Manor residents--has been participating in a special program known as the Human Memory Crusade. Designed to stimulate dormant memories via a “smart” computer interface which interacts with the participant, the HMC program aims to collect data from a large cross-section of elderly people, to be processed and eventually shared with their descendants. So, each week Lane spends a lot of time alone with the computer, trying to accurately recount long-ago remembrances from her youth, marriage, and the war years. 
The HMC program sounded innocent enough, originally, but as Nat watches Lane deteriorate ever-more rapidly, he starts to wonder. Meanwhile, he’s also been contemplating the negative, harmful role which computers--and other technology--might, conceivably, be playing in everyone’s life. The realization that Nat, himself, recalls less and less information--things like telephone numbers, addresses, and combinations which, prior to cellphones and widespread computer use, he would’ve needed to commit to memory--troubles him.
Could there be some connection between Grandma Lane’s steadily-worsening condition and all the time she’s been spending talking to “the box” and telling it her secrets, Nat wonders... or is that just wishful thinking on his part, a convenient place to lay blame? (But, if there’s no connection, why does Lane suddenly seem so agitated, and why does she keep referring to something bad in the past that she doesn’t want Nat to know??)
He doesn’t have any answers, but he suspects that something is very wrong... a belief that only grows stronger when a series of bizarre incidents occur in a short period of time, which put both him and Grandma Lane in danger--starting with someone using them for target practice while they’re enjoying a walk in the park. When Nat soon afterwards receives a mysterious thumb drive (passworded and encrypted) which makes no sense whatsoever, meets a menacing fellow with military connections (who inexplicably wants to play cloak-and-dagger with him), notices that the same car seems to be following him all over the city, and gets a message to meet a strange woman (who subsequently winds up missing, instead)... he can only surmise that he--or he and Lane--have stumbled into the middle of something very, very big. 
As the intrepid (if addled) duo find themselves hurtling from one dangerous situation to the next, they hope to emerge not only with their memories intact... but with their very lives. 
***10010110101101001***
Devil’s Plaything is a compelling book which touches on a wide array of emotions, fears, and concerns. It’s a cautionary tale for the modern age, above all; not only are we unable to fully comprehend the ramifications of this techno lifestyle, but it’s even more impossible for us to envision the crazy innovations and gizmos that have yet to make their way down the pike... or how they will affect us. 
As Nat puts it, “Maybe my problem is technology. The Internet age exacerbates my frenetic characteristics. Information, ideas, and emotions flit in and out--a veritable blog of a world with constant updates and no time to stand still.”
This is also a tale built around a surprisingly-touching love story--that of a grandson and grandmother. Nat and Lane’s relationship is warm and genuine, and it (thankfully) never devolves into the sort of schmaltzy, sentimental tripe which too many authors are prone to fall back on when portraying grandparents.
Finally, Devil’s Plaything deals with a universal concern: the fact that most of us will someday be old, and likely suffering the effects of various losses, lapses, and other indignities (of which we may or may not be fully aware). So, going back to that wisdom which, we’re frequently reminded, we can look forward to in our so-called golden years? We’re probably lucky to have it... because the way things stand now--considering how little we know about the intricate workings of the human brain--we’re definitely going to need it. 
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4 out of 5 mousies

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