Douglas Cooper Essay - Critical Essays

Cooper, Douglas


Douglas Cooper Amnesia

Born in 1960, Cooper is a Canadian novelist.

Set in present-day Toronto, Canada, Amnesia (1992) concerns an unnamed narrator who, hours before his wedding, is confronted in his office by Izzy Darlow, a stranger who commences to relate his life story to the narrator. The narrator, a municipal archivist in charge of overseeing the collection of plans for the city, suffers from amnesia caused by the shock of a past event. He never attends his wedding, but through Izzy's stories pieces together the events of his life which, he discovers, is intimately connected to those of Izzy, his family, and a mental patient named Katie. Like the narrator, Izzy and Katie suffer from identity crises: Izzy's personality was split in two, with one half of himself transformed into a monster, after being caught in a machine one of his brothers built in order to resurrect dead animals, while Katie lost all memory of her past after undergoing electric shock therapy in the asylum to which she was committed following her rape and subsequent nervous breakdown. As with the narrator, Katie rediscovered her past through the stories Izzy told her while he was an employee at the asylum. Structured around a quote from Sigmund Freud—"The mind is like a city"—Amnesia contains explicit references to such works as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), William Shakespeare's Hamlet (1600–01), Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), and Anton Chekhov's The Seagull (1896), and addresses such themes as storytelling, memory, insanity, and the nature of identity. Critical reaction to Amnesia, which was originally published in the United Kingdom and Canada in 1992, has been mixed. While some consider the novel's plot and structure confusing, others describe it as unified and tightly integrated, praising Cooper's use of interrelated symbols and images. Noting the novel's dark and troubling tone, Douglas Hill has written that "[Cooper's] imagery is scary and erotic; his prose is low-keyed but suggestive. In the end, it's his imagination of the borders between the real and the magical, the sane and the psychotic, that gives the novel its considerable power to unsettle."


Daniel Jones (review date May 1992)

SOURCE: A review of Amnesia, in Quill and Quire, Vol. 58, No. 5, May, 1992, p. 19.

[Jones is a novelist. Below, he favorably reviews Amnesia.]

An archivist, who suffers from amnesia, sits in his office. He is to be married in four hours. A stranger, Izzy Darlow, enters the office and, for the next several hours, relates his life story to the archivist. The archivist subsequently misses his own wedding.

This is, ostensibly, the plot of Douglas Cooper's first novel, Amnesia. Through Izzy's story, however, Cooper explores a bewildering variety of themes and subjects: storytelling and its relation to memory, obsession, and madness, and the landscape of Toronto, to name a few.

Izzy's story is centred on his dysfunctional family. Physically isolated from one another by the very design of their labyrinthine house in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood, the family members are free to develop their eccentricities. Izzy's brother, Aaron, conducts elaborate experiments designed to reanimate the dead; Josh, the youngest brother, wanders the streets at night and meets a violent death; the father, a developer, grows more and more estranged from his family.

In his late teens Izzy finds companionship with a young woman, Katie, whom he meets in the hospital where he volunteers. Katie has been driven to madness by an incident in her childhood—which may or may not have been instigated by Izzy—and now is suffering from amnesia, a result of shock therapy.

Izzy's inability to admit, or to remember, his complicity in Katie's madness is paralleled by the archivist's own amnesia and hesitation about his marriage. But Izzy's "amnesia" has darker origins. As a child, reading accounts of the Holocaust, he was forced to come to terms with his own complicity in the horrors perpetrated by men and women against one another.

For Cooper, as for the eccentric characters who populate this novel, the telling of stories becomes both a means of restoring a lost history and a moral imperative, a necessary act of memory in a world where it is easier to forget. While Amnesia explores a variety of large and interconnected issues, it is remarkable for the lucidity and power of its prose. Cooper has written an engaging first novel. For its evocation of Toronto, both past and present, Amnesia deserves to be shelved between Cat's Eye and In the Skin of the Lion.

Douglas Hill (review date September 1992)

SOURCE: "Gritty Terrain," in Books in Canada, Vol. XXI, No. 6, September, 1992, pp. 48-9.

[Hill is a Canadian nonfiction writer, fiction writer, poet, and critic. In the following excerpt, he presents a positive assessment of Amnesia.]

Douglas Cooper's Amnesia is a dark and troubling story … with an … important thematic centre. A series of narrative meditations on memory and forgetting, the novel finds its energy source in domestic disintegration; around the tale's specific events lurks the enormous memory-shadow of the Holocaust, modern history's most infamous example of family destruction. We forget what we can no longer bear to remember, Cooper suggests, personally and collectively. Either way is trauma; either way we suffer.

(The entire section is 882 words.)

Sandra Birdsell, Douglas Glover, and Jack Hodgins (essay date April 1993)

SOURCE: "Memorable Images," in Books in Canada, Vol. XXII, No. 3, April, 1993, pp. 8-13.

[Birdsell is a Canadian novelist, short story writer, and critic. Glover is a Canadian novelist, short story writer, and critic. Hodgins is a Canadian novelist, short story writer, educator, and critic. In the following excerpt, these three judges for the Smith Books/Books in Canada First Novel Award for 1992 present their varied appraisals of Amnesia, which was nominated for the prize.]

[Sandra Birdsell]: I found Douglas Cooper's Amnesia confusing and difficult to follow. It beings at the city archives in the office of an archival librarian. He is the keeper of memories and of history, but cannot recall his own. It has been taken from him by an event he can't remember. One fall day, several hours before he's to be married, the archivist is in his office when a man called Izzy walks in and begins to tell him a story. Hours pass and so does the time for the wedding.

The archivist has a framed quotation by Freud sitting on his desk: "The mind is like a city." Izzy seizes upon it and says that although Freud rejected the idea, "the analogy is important. It is the clue to everything." Aha! I thought, the structure of this novel must also be like a city. It's a place where the past and present, good and evil, exist simultaneously. I took that to be a clue as to how to read the book, and looked for a kind of organic structure whose parts would exist as separate entities but together form a larger, complete story. But the "whole" kept collapsing in on the "parts."

Cooper continually backs away from the "parts" and avoids shaping his material. By using the "let me tell you what happened to me" storytelling method, he doesn't ever grapple with the lives of the people he's telling us about, and therefore they are flat, mere puppets, saying what he's set out for them to say. There's no sense of discovery in this book.

Whenever Izzy the storyteller was gracious enough to step aside and allow the curtain to open and the players to play, the novel was in danger of becoming interesting. In the...

(The entire section is 899 words.)

Michiko Kakutani (review date 25 February 1994)

SOURCE: "An Ancient Mariner Tells a Haunting Modern Tale," in The New York Times, February 25, 1994, p. C29.

[In the following review, Kakutani provides a thematic analysis of Amnesia.]

Amnesia, Douglas Cooper's chilly, chilling first novel, is one of those books that immediately make you think of dozens of other books. Its allusive narrative is filled with explicit references to Frankenstein, The Sea Gull, Hamlet and the writings of Freud and Nietzsche, while its elliptical narrative style recalls works by D.M. Thomas, Paul Auster, Sam Shepard and Vladimir Nabokov. The framing story is borrowed from Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner. As in...

(The entire section is 817 words.)

James Polk (review date 6 March 1994)

SOURCE: "Izzy's Own Story," in The New York Times Book Review, March 6, 1994, p. 17.

[Polk is an educator. In the review below, he comments on Cooper's treatment of memory and characterization in Amnesia.]

Douglas Cooper's Amnesia, a dense, absorbing first novel, locates prominent features in the landscapes of mind and memory. The geography it maps out is rich and challenging, filled with provocations.

Without forewarning, Izzy Darlow begins reciting a strange narrative to an archival librarian who is to be married in four hours. At first, this seems to be Izzy's own story. But is it? "Something … makes it want to replicate, breed inwardly...

(The entire section is 546 words.)

Anne Whitehouse (review date 3 April 1994)

SOURCE: "From Canada: A Portentous, Symbol-laden Tale of Forgetting and Identity," in Chicago Tribune—Books, April 3, 1994, pp. 3, 9.

[In the following, which is a revised version, submitted by the critic, of a review that originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Whitehouse remarks on Amnesia's intricate structure and Cooper's use of myriad symbols and images to discuss human consciousness.]

As Canadian writer Douglas Cooper's first novel Amnesia begins, the nameless narrator, an archival librarian in Toronto, is surprised by a visitor to his office on the morning he is to be married. The visitor, disreputably dressed and carelessly groomed,...

(The entire section is 1089 words.)

Douglas Cooper with Jeff Chapman, CLC Yearbook (interview date 16 January 1995)

[In the following interview, Cooper discusses the themes and characters from Amnesia, his literary influences, and his views on Canadian literature.]

[Chapman]: What was the inspiration for Amnesia?

[Cooper]: The inspiration was multiple. It's almost impossible to trace any large work back to a single inspiration, but I suppose I could trace it back to a single image: a boy trying to bring a kitten back to life by wrapping a wire around it's neck then trailing the wire up the television aerial, in homage to Doctor Frankenstein. I'm not sure if that was the very first image, but it was an extremely early one that gave rise to the entire project.


(The entire section is 4912 words.)