The Answer to the Riddle is Me recently popped up on a friend’s Facebook page and I was instantly drawn to the dark humor of the subtitle A Memoir of Amnesia. The contradiction between a book written to record memories and a brain that has no recollection of those memories made me curious to see what direction David MacLean’s writing would take. Would it be filled with a dark, self-depreciating humor at the situation or bitter and angry or just plain lost and hopeless? Whichever way the story played out, it was this snappy little play on words that prompted me to download the newly released book.
When MacLean wakes up on a train platform in India with no idea who he is, where he is or how he got there, his life begins to unravel. Luckily for him, a tourist policeman realizes there is something wrong with this young man and goes out of his way to offer is assistance and get him to a safe home. Throughout their time together, the officer assumes MacLean is just another foreign tourist who came to the country to use drugs and party and his lack of awareness is really just a terrible high that has yet to wear off. The cop places him in the home of a local woman who helps drug addicts get cleaned up, where both remind him that that his choices are causing great pain for his parents. Soon though, MacLean is admitted to a hospital, as he begins to have seizures and requires medical help for his condition.
As the tale continues, it soon becomes apparent that MacLean is not just a recent college graduate on a multi-continental bender, but rather a Fulbright scholar in India working on a novel, through a grant from the US State Department. It was with a huge amount of relief that I read the first discussion of Lariam. Suddenly, the narrator isn’t an unreliable recreational drug user, but rather (though no fault of his own) an unreliable fellow world traveler. While I was a bit horrified to realize how much I had been judging MacLean for his predicament when I could just think of him as a dumb college graduate traveling the world in search of a party, I definitely fell much deeper into the book when I could make a connection with him as someone seeing the world in hopes of understanding it better, rather than just looking for the next street deal.
Once the doctors realize that MacLean is having horrific side effects from the anti-malarial drug he had been prescribed, they begin to try to push it out of his system, but none of that brings back his memory. His parents take him back to the States, where he spends the next few years trying to piece back together who he was before his psychotic break and who he is in its wake. Friends and passed girlfriends, none of which he can remember, begin to create a tale of who he was, but it is like reading about a different person. All stories of someone else. This book is a fascinating look at what it means to be “you.” With no memories of your past, what do you base your future upon?
This book is also a powerful reminder that even “approved” medications can have serious side effects and for people who often travel to malarial regions of the world, difficult decisions have to be made about prevention vs. possible infection.
The only thing that holds me back from giving this book a full five shells is that I would have liked a deeper look into how MacLean actually rebuilt his life. With little memory, I was surprised at how quickly he jumped back into graduate school. Delving deeper into what memories remained intact while others were lost would have been helpful, as at times I didn’t understand his loss in certain areas and his full comprehension of others. (Academic learning vs. social habits.)
David MacLean’s newly released memoir The Answer to the Riddle is Me is highly readable and for those considering taking Lariam, it is a “must read,” easily earning it: