Okay, so this isn’t anywhere near the top of my unreviewed books list, but I had to bump it up and talk about it RIGHT NOW. It doesn’t seem to be The Big Thing that it deserves to be – I probably wouldn’t even have come across it if Lewis hadn’t found it at the library and dangled it in front of my face. However The Notable Brain of Maximian Ponder is casual, poignant and yet thoroughly amazing. It has to be the best undiscovered book of the decade.
Plot summary: Maximilian Ponder shut himself away for thirty years in an attempt to record every memory he ever had. Now he lies dead, surrounded by his magnum opus – The Catalogue – an exhaustive set of notebooks and journals that he hopes will form the map of one human mind. But before his friend Adam Last can call the police and inform them of Max’s death, one rather gruesome task remains in order for Max’s project to be complete…
Interspersed with sections from The Catalogue, Adam tells the story of the man he knew – a man whose life changed dramatically the day he buried a dead labrador and fought a duel with his father. What emerges is both the story of a friendship and also of a lifelong obsession, a quest to understand the human mind, memory, and how we construct the story of our lives.
It’s probably going to take half this review to explain the damn thing although on the face of it, it’s quite a simple concept. Maximilian Ponder is a recluse – thirty years ago he closed the door on the world in an attempt to record everything on his brain for scientists of the future to unravel. He compares it to a neurological Rosetta Stone – experts may be able to compare his brain with his notes from The Catalogue, and thereby finally unlock the secrets of the brain.
In essence, it’s a story of a man’s perspective upon witnessing either genius, madness or both. It gets quite philosophical at parts and clearly there’s a psychological aspect there as well. That said, it’s never difficult to read. The narrator, Max’s long-term best friend, talks in an informal style as if he’s simply explaining his friend’s eccentricities over a cup of coffee. Intermixed are excerpts from The Catalogue, the form which the project begins to take.
It’s this that really makes the book. Mr Ironmonger has clearly put an awful lot of thought into exactly how somebody would go about this ambitious project and then ensures that we understand perfectly. There are three parts to it – firstly, in the main part of The Catalogue, Max details his memories. He can only write down what is actually in his head and cannot check details with anybody else, even if he thinks he may be misremembering. Secondly, the Appendix contains Max’s knowledge. Lists of dog breeds, for example, or every film he can remember. People he has known also feature here and as much of a profile on them as he can put together. Finally, there is Max’s Day Log. Here he details everything that happens to him as he is actually doing the project, although it may only consist of conversations with Adam and his meals.
Entries from The Catalogue itself and the Appendix feature in the actual novel, sometimes relating to Adam’s narrative, sometimes not. It gives a very jumpy feel to the book, especially as Adam doesn’t really attempt any kind of chronological order either. Normally this would annoy me, but it works so well here. I mean, what’s more inconsistent than the human brain?
It’s clever. So very clever. There are sometimes tiny but deliberate discrepancies between Adam’s account and Max’s Catalogue entries to emphasise the core point that two people’s experiences of the same event may be very different. As the book itself points out, no man steps in the same river twice, nor two men into the same river. It also brings up the point of false memories – how much of what Max remembers is correct and how much was ‘filled in’ by his imagination?
The ending is one of the best I’ve read, ever. I wasn’t sure whether to cry or throw up or what, but my heart was hammering and my fingers were gripping the sides of the book so hard I left permanent indentations. It’s just perfect. It’s a slow build-up, but it makes so much sense and left me absolutely desperate to know what happened. It almost, almost matches 11.22.63 and we all know how much I loved that one.
Sometimes when you review a book you loved, you can’t really explain yourself and your review post ends up a tangled babble of mush, much like this one. I know I’m not being coherent or even particularly helpful, but read between the lines. I loved this book. I want to hug it at night and weep. This is the book that the words ‘modern masterpiece’ were created for.