The 2000 movie Memento happens to be a favourite among viewers and with good reason. At the time of writing it is #29 on IMDB’s top 250.
If you are not familiar with Memento, do try to watch it, and with full attention. It takes a very innovative concept and turns it even more innovative. The protagonist Leonard Shelby discloses at the start of the tale that he suffers from anterograde amnesia (short term memory loss). He remembers that in an attack his wife was mortally wounded and the injury that he suffered on his head caused this condition in him. He remembers things before the attack, but cannot hold on to things happening after the attack. The story proceeds to show how he tracks down his wife’s killer. And that is where the fun begins. The director and screenwriter use three plot devices – a reverse chronological thread, a chronological series of flashbacks and an intuitive way of creating memories for a man with none.
Within 10 minutes you realize that the story is being told in a reverse sequence – first you see the last 5 minutes of the story, then you see the 5 minutes preceding it, then you see the 5 minutes before that, and so on. This way, what you see at the end is actually the beginning of the story. You also see Leonard taking polaroid shots of people and scenes that he comes across, then jotting down important things on the photos. Additionally he gets important information tattooed on himself. This way he creates memories that he can hold on to. What you also see is the story of Sammy Jankis, one of Leonard’s former clients and a victim of anterograde amnesia.
Obviously, when you have a story being told in this manner, you are in for a surprise at the end. And in compliance with my unspoken policy I will not spoil that end for you.
Memento got a lot of kudos at the time of its release, because of the innovative reverse-chronological style of story telling. However, when I first heard of the story, I knew that the narrative style wasn’t entirely original. Back in college I had borrowed a science fiction collection from the hostel library and that had a short story of which I could recollect the two supporting characters – Tharn and a robot. Neither Google nor Wikipedia were very helpful, since I couldn’t recollect the name of the book, the name of the story or the story’s author. After several aborted attempts I finally had success today.
Typically I tend to remember the names of a few short stories in a collection. In this case, given that I had read the book more than 12 years back, and given that I had read several books around the same time, my memory was clouded. But eventually I did manage to recall one story – “Brightside Crossing”. I knew earlier that Asimov’s “Nightfall” was in this collection, but then that short story is a part of several collections. A Google search gave me the link to a collection called Beyond Tomorrow – 10 Science Fiction Adventures and I immediately knew I had struck gold. There was one story in this book called “Happy Ending” by Henry Kuttner. This was what I was looking for.
Turned out that Wikipedia did have an entry for this:
“James Kelvin pushed the button on the device the robot had given him. He was instantly transported to the chemist with the red moustache, who exclaimed, ‘Where have you been? I patented those medicinal formulas you gave me, and they are easily worth several millions of dollars. We will both be healthy, famous and rich!'” This was the happy ending to the story of that name about James Kelvin (by Henry Kuttner, 1949). But it is also the first paragraph of the story! Now it continues with the beginning of his tale, and by the end of that beginning, the reader receives a nasty jolt, as every assumption of the happy ending is turned inside out by the truth.
As you can see, there is no mention of either Tharn or a robot, which indeed makes it more difficult to locate this story! However, armed with this information I did manage to get some excerpts:
This is the way the story ended:
James Kelvin concentrated very hard on the thought of the chemist with the red moustache who had promised him a million dollars. It was simply a matter of tuning in on the man’s brain, establishing a rapport. He had done it before. Now it was more important than ever that he do it this one last time. He pressed the button on the gadget the robot had given him, and thought hard.
Far off, across limitless distances, he found the rapport.
He clamped on the mental tight beam.
He rode it …
The red-moustached man looked up, gaped, and grinned delightedly.
“So there you are!” he said. “I didn’t hear you come in. Good grief, I’ve been trying to find you for two weeks.”
“Tell me one thing quickly,” Kelvin said. “What’s your name?”
“George Bailey. Incidentally, what’s yours?”
But Kelvin didn’t answer. He had suddenly remembered the other thing the robot had told him about that gadget which established rapport when he pressed the button. He pressed it now – and nothing happened. The gadget had gone dead. Its task was finished, which obviously meant he had at last achieved health, fame and fortune. The robot had warned him, of course. The thing was set to do one specialised job. Once he got what he wanted, it would work no more.
So Kelvin got the million dollars.
And he lived happily ever after …
This is the middle of the story:
As he pushed aside the canvas curtain something – a carelessly hung rope – swung down at his face, knocking the horn-rimmed glasses askew. Simultaneously a vivid bluish light blazed into his unprotected eyes. He felt a curious, sharp sense of disorientation, a shifting motion that was almost instantly gone.
Things steadied before him. He let the curtain fall back into place, making legible again the painted inscription: HOROSCOPES – LEARN YOUR FUTURE – and he stood staring at the remarkable horomancer.
It was a – oh, impossible!
The robot said in a flat, precise voice, “You are James Kelvin. You are a reporter. You are thirty years old, unmarried, and you came to Los Angeles from Chicago today on the advice of your physician. Is that correct?”
This is the way the story starts:
Quarra Vee sat in the temporal warp with his android Tharn, and made sure everything was under control.
“How do I look?” he asked.
“You’ll pass,” Tharn said. “Nobody will be suspicious in the era you’re going to. It didn’t take long to synthesise the equipment.”
“Not long. Clothes – they look enough like real wool and linen, I suppose. Wristwatch, money – everything in order. Wristwatch – that’s odd, isn’t it? Imagine people who need machinery to tell time!”
“It’ll be safer. The optical properties in the lenses are a guard you may need against mental radiations. Don’t take them off, or the robot may try some tricks.”
“He’d better not,” Quarra Vee said. “That so-and-so runaway robot! What’s he up to, anyway, I wonder? He always was a malcontent, but at least he knew his place. I’m sorry I ever had him made. No telling what he’ll do in a semi-prehistoric world if we don’t catch him and bring him home.”
Note that the texts “This is the way the story ended”, “This is the middle of the story” and “This is the way the story starts” are in the original text and are not my embellishments. Obviously I have left out the main story, but the author does the decomposition into three parts, giving the last part first, the middle part next and the beginning last. And obviously you are in for a shock at the end. This story was first published in the “Thrilling Wonder Stories” August 1948 edition, so it predates Memento by more than half a century. And apart from the reverse chronological setting there is brainwashing involved too.
Memento takes this concept up a few notches and splits the sequence into several sections, thereby adding scope for unpredictability in each section. That is where its novelty lies – not in the reverse chronology itself.