The past has always plagued M.G. Vassanji's diasporic, mixed-race characters. It haunts and nags, percolating into their lives in inconvenient ways until the inevitable reckoning.
Now, thanks to a late-career foray into speculative fiction, Vassanji has created a world where the problem of the past has been solved for good. (Or has it?)
That world is a Toronto of the undefined but not-too-far-distant future in which technology has made near-immortality possible. The body ages, but endures. One of the downsides of longevity being the buildup of emotional baggage and dead relatives, members of (in a twisting of current nomenclature) the New Generation, or NGs, are also given new pasts – comforting, anodyne origin stories and memories implanted in their brains.
Alas, it turns out the system needs some tweaking. Occasionally, a malady known as Leaking Memory, or Nostalgia Syndrome, causes reminiscences from a previous life to intrude into the present one. Nowadays, we think of nostalgia as a rose-tinted view of the past that's just a knob-turn away from sentimentality. But the condition described here, which can "pull the sufferer into an internal abyss," plays the word closer to its Greek root, algos, meaning pain or ache.
Treating nostalgia-afflicted NGs is the full-time job of Frank Sina, a doctor at the Sunflower Centre for Human Rejuvenation. As the data associated with people's previous identities are permanently discarded (or so the government claims), Frank doesn't know his patients' true pasts, but some are dark indeed. "Rejuvies" include refugees, war criminals or terrorists from across the Long Border that protects the North Atlantic Alliance from Maskinia, a loosely defined region of ex-European colonies whose inhabitants speak a Babel-like mix of Arabic, English and African languages. Though Maskinia is considered lawless and barbaric, it's exploited by the NAA for its valuable resources as well as its inhabitants' genetic material. Those seeking "authentic" experiences still travel there, though the recent abduction of a young reporter, Holly Chu, has served as a reminder of the region's dangers.
The rejuvenation process has a curiously literary bent. Assigning a new personality is called "publishing." Frank's job, which involves debugging people's personal fictions and smoothing out their inconsistencies, sounds a lot like editing: "To our eyes, every life story is one more narrative to be examined for structure and meaning and coherence; for its utility."
Like in the old Hair Club for Men ad, Frank isn't just a rejuvie doctor, he's also a client. And a successful one, who values his (fake) pleasant memories of a Yukon childhood spent with his American mathematician-father and Irish poet-mother. His attractive live-in girlfriend, Joan Wayne, on the other hand, is a "BabyGen" – an actual young person with real relatives and no past lives – surprising, given that BabyGens are generally hostile to the NGs' usurping of jobs. Joan works in the women's department at Bay Harrods and keeps a lover. She's kind to Frank, but both recognize the transactional nature of their relationship. On their first night together, Frank says, they made love, "Or I made love, she gave herself up to sex. And she agreed to move in with me."
The first scuff in the veneer of Frank's life comes the day Presley Smith, a part-time security guard with a taste for Wagner, combat games and bright yellow socks, walks into his office. Presley's red afro, pale skin and green eyes flag him as the work of the legendary, and whimsical, Author X. But something about Presley resonates with Frank more deeply. He feels an inexplicable bond with this eccentric, nervous man.
When he comes for his next appointment, Presley claims, unconvincingly, that his memories are under control, then promptly disappears. An obsessed Frank enlists his computer-assistant, Tom (whose calm, mid-Atlantic male accent and unnecessary use of Frank's name evokes HAL more than Siri), to do some research. He also starts keeping a journal – a book of secrets, if you will – which he handwrites to avoid Tom's prying eyes. It's a futile gesture: Tom has access to Frank's thoughts though he politely pretends not to. Sure enough, Frank is soon contacted by the Department of Internal Security (one of several Orwellian flourishes), which tells him to stop contacting Presley, who, they claim, is a national security risk. Prohibition being the surest way to pique someone's interest, Frank does no such thing, cueing the unravelling of Nostalgia's well-calibrated plot.
Vassanji hardly needed the cover of speculative fiction to explore generational anxiety, ethnic identity, economic subjugation or postcolonial strife. Yet, it's a genre he inhabits with ease. Better still, the change of scenery has put him in an appealingly playful mood. Nostalgia is often funny and ironic, a description that hasn't often applied to Vassanji's writing. While portraying Toronto's Yonge and Eglinton as a hotbed for social foment is a bit of an inside joke – the corner is known locally as "Young and Eligible" – other touches, such as the characterizing of anti-rejuvenation religious groups as "pro-death" will have broader resonance. (In other bad news, the Leafs are still losing.)
There's self-abnegating charm, too, to the fact that Nostalgia is also a fiction about the insufficiency of fiction. When the pathetic reality of Frank's situation finally hits him, he has a moment of despairing lucidity: "I'm a fake. I'm a fiction. A character in a book."
Emily Donaldson is the editor of Canadian Notes & Queries.