One of the reasons our recent loss of books hit me so hard is that each volume contains memories. Among the more disturbing developments of memory studies in recent years is the fact that what we remember has a tendency to be unreliable. In other words, our narratives about ourselves contains a good deal of fiction that we remember as fact. Even if we write down our impressions shortly after an event, such scribbles are just that—impressions. Lee Irby explores this dynamic in his novel Unreliable. Now, since the narrator may be the most unreliable I’ve ever read, I don’t want to give away too much. Irby knows what it’s like to be a professor (something that some of us share with him) and he has a good sense of Edgar Allan Poe. It’s one of those books that touched on a number of things in my own life. I think.
First of all, this was an impulse buy at Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, New York. I soon discovered why they stocked it. Edwin Stith, the narrator, teaches at a fictional college in Ithaca. The story, however, is set in Richmond, Virginia, where Prof. Stith has gone for his mother’s second wedding. With characters compellingly drawn, he meets his new step-family, runs into an old-girlfriend, and tries to both avoid and hook up with a student of his that he’s dating, more or less. He claims from the start, however, that we shouldn’t believe him. The largest part of the story takes place over one feverish day following a very late arrival in town, with plenty of Poe references sprinkled throughout the tale.
Apart from the Ithaca and former professor connections, the book also mentioned, rather spookily, meeting a girl from Slippery Rock University—a rather obscure school from my old neighborhood. I had dated a Slippery Rock co-ed who’d proved about as unreliable as our narrator, so this single, brief reference managed to jump-start some of my own memories, reliable or not. Our pasts, along with the books we read, make us who we are. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve thought of a scene I’d supposed I’d forgotten from a book I’ve read years ago. Just the other day I recalled, completely out of of the blue, apropos of nothing, a scene from a Doc Savage novella I’d read as a tween. Was it a reliable memory? I have no way to judge, I guess. And that’s the scary part, as I’m sure Poe would’ve agreed.