I picked Nostalgia up not knowing much about it other than that it had been on Canada Reads. Science fiction isn’t really a genre I normally associate with Canadian literature, so I was intrigued.
In the indeterminate future, humans have figured out how to live forever … almost. With the brain’s storage capacity limited, people no longer want old, contradictory, or confusing memories. A new body needs a new mind, a new identity. This rejuvenation requires the wiping of all memories and the implanting of fictitious pasts. But the process isn’t always perfect. In some cases, the new identity cracks, allowing traces of the past to leak through. Leaked Memory Syndrome, or Nostalgia, confuses the mind and threatens the safety of sufferers.
Dr. Frank Sina specializes in sealing leaks and stopping Nostalgia. He is a rejuvenated man satisfied with his profession and comfortable with his relationship with a younger woman. But when a man named Presley comes to his office with recurring images in his mind of a past time and place, Frank’s life becomes a whirl of mystery.
He suspects Presley’s unwanted memories come from Maskinia, a worn-torn area to the south of the well-guarded border – the same area where a reporter recently went missing. When the Department of Internal Security shows interest in Presley’s case, Frank’s suspicions are confirmed. If Presley is a Department of Internal Security creation, who was the real Presley? And why do the images Presley sees in his mind strike Frank as familiar?
Let’s get into it…
What a strange book! I don’t think I’ve ever read Canadian literature like this. It reminded me of Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, but perhaps that’s because I haven’t read a lot of literary science fiction.
The premise of the novel was what made me want to read it, and it certainly is a rich premise. The leaked memory issue drives the plot, but Nostalgia isn’t an action-packed story like Total Recall. Yes, there’s lots of intrigue, especially with the government after Presley, but it’s actually quite introspective (how Canadian!). The narration includes Frank’s notes, musings, and conversations with the AI on his computer. We get to see how Presley’s leaked memories affect him and the anomalies within his own thoughts. Nostalgia thus raises questions about identity and the connection between mind and body.
(The only thing that I’ve read recently that this premise reminds me of is Adam Silvera’s More Happy Than Not. But just because they share the idea that memories can be rewritten. Nostalgia is aimed at an older audience and because the rewriting is more ubiquitous it reflects more on the society rather than a single character’s struggle with self-acceptance.)
There are lots of other elements to rejuvenation that M.G. Vassanji examines within the novel. The different perspectives on living forever help to make the world seem real. Different characters make religious, ethical, and economic arguments against it. For example, Frank’s girlfriend is much younger – she’s not been rejuvenated – and her generation argues that they can’t find meaningful employment because no one retires. Furthermore, there’s the economic disparity between countries, with Maskinia not having access to any of the wealth and technology of Frank’s country.
The writing itself is quite skillful. The different forms of narration add to the experimental nature of the book. Frank’s writings are particularly interesting. They reflect his decline into nostalgia, causing the reader to feel a bit un-tethered within the narrative, which makes piecing together the different memories and plot lines a unique challenge.
This is definitely a book I can see students reading in English classes. There’s just so much to think about. I feel like I need to reread it to absorb everything it has to offer.
Final thoughts: Nostalgia is a unique look at the power of memory through the lens of science fiction. It offers a critique of technology, economic disparity, immigration, and social responsibility. I’d recommend it to anyone looking to branch out within Canadian literature.