Thursday, September 5, 2013

Thoughts about False Memory by Dean Koontz

I think, though I am not entirely certain, that False Memory was the first Dean Koontz book I ever read. This would have been when I was between 16 and 18 years old. I enjoyed the book at the time, though there were some elements that made me uncomfortable, even then.

Upon re-reading it, it was... it didn't hold up. (If you're planning on reading this novel for... some reason, spoilers ahoy, I guess.)

The book is, largely, about Martie and Dusty Rhodes evading and 'beating' Dr. Mark Ahriman, who is a master of the kind of deep hypnotic controls you only hear about in conspiracy theories and cold-war era novels. (Funnily enough, the Manchurian Candidate is a central plot point in this novel.)

Martie and Dusty Rhodes are some of Koontz's very familiar archetypes. I've read enough to know that he has a few: there is the Nicest Person the Fucking World, there is the Grumpy Jerk (Who is Actually the Nicest Person in the Fucking World), and then there is the Bad Guy (who tends to have an obsession with sweets). There's no real need to expand on these archetypes, to be honest.

Martie and Dusty both fall under the Nicest People in the Fucking World character-type. Martie had a father who was, if possible, even more inhumanly good and nice, a firefighter who saved countless lives and later died of cancer, constantly referred to (even by Martie) as Smilin' Bob.

We get no true sense of Martie's father as an actual father figure, only as this distant hero. Not in a way that Martie resents or anything- that would have made it a bit interesting, exploring a heroic father who was so good at his job he destroyed his health and wasn't around to be close to his daughter- but every conversation was about what a hero he was, not about what kind of father he was. 

Martie is also described as a video game designer, but I get the feeling that she's described as such by someone who only has the vaguest ideas of what a video game even is. Like, he understand that video games are a Thing which Exist, and that naturally someone must be involved in the creation thereof, so let's just make Martie one and give vague references to it! Honestly, if he picked her career by spinning a wheel or rolling dice and consulting a chart, I would be the opposite of shocked.

Dusty is a house painter, and we know significantly more about that (presumably because Koontz has either known someone who was a house painter or hired a house painter). Dusty's career is treated as something 'real' while Martie ends up leaving her job to become a vet. This is treated as some kind of character development, though I don't know why, exactly. I guess it's because Martie wanted to be a vet when she was younger, but at one point in my youth I wanted to be a vacuum cleaner when I grew up (true story), so...


A very, very rough summary of the plot follows:

Dr. Ahriman is capable of 'programming' people to retreat into a completely docile and obedient state, and he often does so to his own amusement. He is a psychiatrist by trade, and often treats people he's programmed with terrible phobias. Susan Jagger, Martie's best friend, has been programmed to have a crippling fear of open spaces, and has been suffering for quite a period of time when the novel starts. Martie has just started down the road to a crippling fear of herself, again at the behest of Ahriman's programming.

Ahriman has also been using the programming to rape Susan on a regular basis.

While we're spared some of the gory details, it's definitely still really gross. Susan is later programmed to kill herself, because she knew something was up (though she had been instructed to believe her estranged husband was responsible) and she wanted hard evidence of it, so she set up a video camera and caught him in action.

Dusty later figures out something is wrong due to him noticing his missing time, and then later when he begins to tell Martie about reading the novel, he accidentally triggers the beginning state of her programming with one of the names. Strangely, it seems that Ahriman gave Martie the novel, but instructed her to never read it.(Susan's death occurs and then doesn't really impact the plot, sigh.)

It doesn't take Dusty and Martie very long at all to break their programming, largely due to Ahriman's (it must be said) extreme incompetence, which he claims is in the interest of a fair game. But mostly, every time Ahriman screws up, it's Because the Plot Needs Him To.

We get a hint of this early on, when Ahriman doesn't realize that Susan has videotaped him until he is long gone, and must return and take care of it. This is largely to A: create a second or two of false tension and B: give Martie and Dusty a reason to believe that Ahriman is responsible for their programming without Ahriman knowing. This is only accomplished due to a wording quirk- Ahriman asks if Susan had spoken to anybody about the contents of the tape. (She hadn't, technically, she'd left a message on their answering machine because Martie was in the middle of a panic attack.)

Later, Martie and Dusty go to New Mexico (they get some information from Martie's doctor who somehow happens to have also had a run-in with Ahriman and has a handy file on him, that's what leads them to New Mexico). Ahriman doesn't try to call their cell phone and access their programming even when he knows they know something because... um, well, he thinks that they're probably being really careful about calls and so there's no sense in even trying. (Because.)

There's a subplot about Dusty's younger half-brother Skeet, but I don't care. He's just there to work as a plot point.

The plot is mostly formulaic and has a happy ending very typical of Koontz books. Oh, related: though threatened at one point, the dog lives. Koontz rarely kills of dogs, the only time I can remember a dog having an 'on screen death' (as it were) the dogs were highly trained, violent and deadly guard dogs.

In this case the resolution could have posed a tricky problem. Going to the police and claiming your psychiatrist has been programming you in order to rape you and use you to kill other people is just not going to gain you much ground. If Martie or Dusty just march in and shoot him, they'll get arrested and go to jail (or be put in a psychiatric institute when they start talking about the programming). If Skeet does the job, he'll be put in an institute most likely, having recently left a rehab clinic against medical advice.With those pieces in play, the only real way to resolve everything relatively happily is for Our Heroes to kill Ahriman in cold blood. Like, to plan his murder and get away with it. The novel was so close to being super interesting, man.

Koontz solves that problem by having a character come in at the last minute, introduced in the last 1/3 or so of the book, who shoots Skeet (*rimshot*) and then the doctor because she believes they're machines in the Matrix.

No, really. Literally. She was seeing Ahriman because she had cultivated an obsession with Keanu Reeves that had turned into a paranoia of him, and during the course of her therapy she began to suspect something was not on the up and up with Ahriman, so she followed him while he was following Skeet and another character and saw him 'kill them' (they were wearing Kevlar, Because) and Ahriman called her and convinced her that the Matrix was real and that The One had special interest in her.

So, in truth, had Martie and Dusty taken Skeet and just hauled ass for Mexico or Nova Scotia or Iceland, Ahriman would still have been defeated. The whole thing seems kinda pointless, at that point. Like, in most of his novels, at least the protagonists of the story solve their own problems, but in this case not even that much happens. The whole book is like this.

They wouldn't know Ahriman was responsible for their situation without Susan. They wouldn't have any info on Ahriman without Martie's doctor (who just happened to have a run in with Ahriman before and just happened to have a full file on the doctor). They wouldn't have been freed from their programming if Ahriman hadn't handed them the key. Their 'activating' triggers were all from the same book, the Manchurian candidate. The haiku poems that accessed their subconscious or what-the-fuck-ever, were all drawn from the same collection of 'classic' haiku poems, by the same poet. They take no actions that significantly impact the plot. The events of the plot don't really significantly impact them. (Martie changes careers. Whoop-de-fucking-do.) So, what is the point?

I think the point was Ahriman. Ahriman could almost have been interesting enough to make the novel work, but Koontz doesn't really work in subtle strokes, and doesn't know how to take something so over the top that it comes around again. (Too much is too much but way too much is just enough, you know?) So Ahriman is neither truly gleeful and evil enough to seem a true obstacle, nor subtle or layered enough to be truly interesting.

He's suppose to be smart, but he makes some astoundingly foolish decisions during the course of the novel. 

When he is following Skeet around, he has his housekeeper drop off his most subtle car, which is fucking purple. (He actually says it's the least attention-getting of his cars. I don't even. Are the rest neon colored?) He also completely misses being followed by the woman who eventually kills him, even though she's driving an equally noticeable car (a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud- google it real quick).

He also is a character that the book so badly wants to be on par with Doctor Lecter (at some point Goldberg Variations is supposed to be playing during a scene between Martie and Susan, which I think is a direct reference). He's built up to be this very intelligent and dangerous opponent, who thinks of everything and can adapt to any outcome. He's supposed to be incredibly disarming and has pioneered a secret field of psychologically handling people for a secret organization.

He's also an atrocious psychiatrist. In practice, he has less charm than smarm, and he's about as subtle and nuanced as a brick to the face. His decisions from beginning to end are often questionable at best. His motivation is, supposedly, a game. Life is a game, and all the men and women in his command are just for his amusement- except it doesn't really feel like that at all. It's just an excuse to have these things happen, I think. The book smacks heavily of Plot Because Plot, without any real reason, and it seems like everyone is just doing what they're doing Because. Nothing happens for any reason other than Because.

Normally Koontz books are fast reads for me. Though they're formulaic, I do enjoy them (really!) but this book was difficult for me to slog through, especially towards the end as more and more of the padding dripped in. I would say that if you enjoy Koontz books (or like fast reading, formulaic books with happy endings where the sweet dog prolly won't die) you still should give this a miss in favor of his other works.

1 comment:

  1. I know you posted it last month, but only saw this review a couple of days ago. I haven't read "False Memory" myself, but judging by your review, it sounds like a great demonstration of how a good idea doesn't necessarily translate into a good story if the execution isn't up to par. And why it's important to give characters flaws. Or any imperfect reactions at all, really.