K.J. Parker’s latest novella is narrated by an anonymous man with a unique and unexplained gift: the ability to enter into the mind of anyone within eyesight and steal their memories as easily as grabbing scrolls off a bookshelf. Afterward his victims (or customers, as the case may be) have a headache but no idea anything’s missing. He keeps the memories as his own, rendering him the titular “last witness” to any event he wipes from others’ minds.
To enable this fantasy, Parker treats memories as discreet objects to be handled, not unlike that recent Pixar movie in which they bounce around like glass balls within our minds. Everything is up for grabs: there’s no distinction between episodic memory (specific events), semantic memory (broad concepts), and procedural memory (motor skills). The narrator can slice in like a scalpel and trim out a single crime, rendering a witness harmless under oath; or, in more desperate situations, he can completely pillage someone’s knowledge, making an assassin forget his job.
When I read the book’s blurb going in I was excited by a premise that seemed bound to explore juicy issues of identity and ethics. Think of the questions this skill raises: Will disrupting others’ continuity of experience cause them to crumble into non-persons, confused or conflicted? Will the narrator become so burdened by their disturbing memories that he develops dissociative identities or symptoms of vicarious post-traumatic stress? I hoped I was in for the high-stakes manipulations of Total Recall with a pinch of the bittersweet surrealism of Eternal Sunshine.
But, to my disappointment, Parker’s narrator rarely touches on these questions, and shallowly at that. Although the plot is entirely driven by the memories he’s collected, he mentions them without really contemplating their significance beyond serving as tools for blackmail or profit. He’s more concerned with his physical safety, material wealth, and—weirdly—mastering concertos on a stolen flute (with stolen motor skills). True, it’s interesting that he occasionally ponders whether he doesn’t really know who he is, either because his stolen memories have confused his sense of personal past or because some of his own memories have been erased. But then he shrugs off the thought and carries on with the economics of his day job.
Even putting aside my frustration at his lack of introspection, he’s an unsatisfying character, full of contradictions without coming off as complex so much as underdeveloped. He repeatedly assures the reader that he’s “no angel” as he slick-talks his way through business deals, expertly assaults his enemies in back alleys, and gambles away the coins he earns each day as a mercenary memory-wiper. He seems like any other petty criminal who takes pleasure in his ability to intimidate and manipulate others; the fact that his skill is so unusual is almost an afterthought and isn’t really examined as anything more than a plot-driver.
Said plot stumbles forward when a big job earns him a small fortune, prompting him to gloat about his new status as “a god.” The gambling addiction is instantly overcome and forgotten. He browses a few luxurious urban apartments, then abruptly decides to move to a ramshackle farmhouse and retire young as a gentleman farmer, apparently tired of all that power he’d been wielding for years. Within a week, though, foxes lay waste to his chicken coop and the big tough criminal bawls like a child; then assassins attack and he flees on foot to a neighboring country, abandoning his fortune to start over as a professional flutist. The series of events feels arbitrary and unmotivated, as though Parker were writing on the fly with more concern for a deadline than an outline. I plowed ahead despite a slew of unanswered questions: If he can erase any memory, why doesn’t he make his enemies forget their grudge against him? If he can steal any skill, why didn’t he pursue whatever career he wanted years ago? This character could’ve had such engrossing adventures if his author had thought out all the possibilities and given him a more lifelike, comprehensible psyche.
On a related note, The Last Witness is set in that default world of underdeveloped fantasies: a Europe-like land with fictional cities, temples, and currencies. It’s vaguely Medieval in its feudal agriculture, cobblestoned cities, torches, and plagues, but with anachronistic dabs of the Baroque (concertos and teatime) and the flat-out modern (democratic elections and real estate agencies). There’s only so much world-building one can fit into a seventy-page novella, and for the first thirty pages you could ignore this vagueness by assuming the setting is inconsequential. But halfway through the story, diplomats and orchestras unexpectedly play a central role in the plot. The leap is disorienting and highlights the unplanned meanderings of both the world and the narrator in it.
The most interesting plot points are those that hint at and eventually develop our understanding of the narrator’s past, including the threat posed by a mysterious “skinny girl” with similar powers (who he describes as unrapeable when they meet?!?!) . Unfortunately, she doesn’t even appear until the novella is half over, and we only see her twice more as the story careens to a close. By then I was too confused about and annoyed by the narrator’s haphazard motives to care very much about his origins or his fate. It’s a shame—the twists near the end are rather nice. They deserve a much clearer, cleaner setup. If only the rambling of the novella’s first two-thirds could be edited to improve the voice, setting, and pace, Parker might’ve had the space to craft a worthwhile climax and maybe more than a mere page of tightly-canned denouement.