Jones: Memento and Falling Angel

Split Identities and World(s) Under Erasure in Memento and Falling Angel: Playing on the Detective Figure in Postmodern Crime Fiction

Daniel Jones, Lancaster University

Autumn 2002

‘A writer of crime stories has to embody in the detective a set of values which the audience finds convincing, forces which they can believe will work to contain the disorders of crime.’ (Knight, 368)

JonesKnight, writing here of the Sherlock Holmes stories, suggests something we are all well aware of – that Holmes forms probably the closest thing to an epitome of the classic detective role in crime fiction. He works through analysis and deduction, utilizing fashionably new scientific ideas, an astounding knowledge of criminology, and superhuman intellect to restore order to the world and provide the stories with their solution. He is a superman, a ‘perfect reasoning and observing machine’ who succeeds by sheer genius, and the belief that there is ‘nothing new under the sun’ (Doyle, ‘Scandal in Bohemia’, CSH, 70 and ‘Study in Scarlet’, cited in Jann, 689).  However, here we ignore the constantly subversive nature of the crime fiction genre, even at this early stage in its development, for Holmes may be the perfect Victorian detective, but he also stands on the verge of Modernism, fearing the disorder of the vast unknown city, providing only a single force against the oncoming tide of disorder, of the pluralising of truths, the loss of objectivity, and the dislocation of language from reality. Within himself, Holmes is a representation of this schizoid cultural moment, being both an intellectual machine, and yet also an opium-smoking bohemian, working by the most unconventional methods, methods that often work by breaking the stable rigidity of Victorian thinking – for example, his mastery of disguises (Doyle, ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’, CSH, 100).

From near the beginning of Christopher Nolan’s film, Memento, we can see its use of the Holmes conventions, not least in Teddy’s reference to Leonard (‘Where to Sherlock?’), but later in Leonard’s own description of his investigative techniques (‘Well, I go on facts, not recommendations, but thanks’), a description which mirrors Holmesian thought (‘I shall keep on piling fact upon fact on you, until your reason breaks down under them and acknowledges me to be right’ – ‘The Red-Headed League’, CSH, 77). William Hjortsberg’s debt to the American Hard-Boiled tradition in Falling Angel is even more prominent than Nolan’s to Doyle in Memento, especially in its recreation of a detective who ‘finds no way out. And so he is slugged, shot at, choked, doped, yet he survives because it is in his nature to survive’ (Ruhm, xiv). Indeed, Hjortsberg’s Harry Angel is exactly the cowboy-like loner who acts as detective in hard-boiled fiction, and along with this role comes the reduced power of the detective role – his ability to bring some order, but never to succeed completely. In Hjortsberg’s recreation of the city of the 1950’s, he also recreates the paranoia, the darkness, the fear and the disorder, and this is further presented through the use of a Gothic-influenced overly dramatic narrative style: ‘It was Friday the thirteenth and yesterday’s snowstorm lingered in the streets like a leftover curse’ (Hjortsberg, 1).

The essential reasoning behind this brief overview of the detective role in the classic and hard-boiled crime fiction traditions is to provide a staging post for my analysis of the detective role in Memento and Falling Angel, both of which I see as postmodern crime stories. As can be seen, both the film and novel work from the conventions of a vast amount of detective fiction, both utilizing and subverting these conventions in their creation of detectives and undermining of the detective role. In a postmodern world, the bohemian tendencies of Holmes, and the chaotic paranoia of the hard-boiled detective, are taken to new extremes – the detective can no longer restore order or provide a solution. In essence, the lack of objective truth and meaning in postmodern fiction overwhelms the superman powers of the detective to provide ‘the truth’. The particular postmodern aspects to be studied focus on the emergence of ‘split selves’ in the detectives, the cancellation of the detective roles at the end of both texts, and the erasure of textual worlds, realities and truths which have been set up throughout the texts. These postmodern instabilities in essence follow the line of Dick Higgins’ Postcognitive questions in Postmodernist Fiction. The detective is forced to ask: ‘ “Which world is this? What is to be done in it? Which of my selves is to do it?”’ (McHale, 1). Finally, it will be important to note the effect that these ploys have on the detective-like role of the reader, who is no longer able to ‘solve’ the text, but is forced to erase their own assumptions and observations, and ‘reread’ the textual worlds constructed, and deconstructed, within the texts. “I am not one woman, but many. Just as you are more than one man.” “Is that voodoo?” “That’s common sense.” (Hjortsberg, 244)

The memory problems experienced by both Leonard Shelby and Harry Angel serve initially to hide from the texts a very postmodern ‘twist’ – the multiplicity of selves that create an identity. The reader of crime fiction is forced to assume the stability of the detective’s identity and morality in order to follow him through the investigation narrative, and postmodern fiction is not original in playing on this assumption. The split between Sherlock Holmes’ intellectual and bohemian tendencies is taken to greater extremes in later American crime fiction, such as in Jim Thomson’s A Hell of a Woman, which ends with the innovatively schizophrenic perspective of Frank Dillon, the ‘hero’ and criminal of the text, whose dual identity is given an impressive textual presence:

“then she was smiling again and letting me see. There, she

at all. Helene came to the door of the bathroom, and she

said, that’s much better, isn’t it? And, then, nice as I’d

didn’t want it, all I had to give. She began laughing, screaming.

been, she started laughing. Screaming at me.

I threw myself out the window.” (Thompson, 184-5)

However, the split selves presented in Memento and Falling Angel take this idea to greater extremity, and the use of memory (or lack thereof) as a tool for repressing the ‘second self’ until the end of both texts presents the audience with an absolute identity crisis, an absolute relativisation of the textual selves created, and an inability to choose between these selves. Hjortsberg’s Harry Angel is discovered to be quite literally two people, the soul of Johnny Favorite, who ate the heart of Harry Angel back in 1943: “Poor old Harry Angel, fed to the dogs like table scraps. I killed him and ate his heart, but it was me who died all the same. Not even magic and power can change that. I was living on borrowed time and another man’s memories; a corrupt hybrid creature trying to escape the past.” (Hjortsberg, 287)

The strategy of Hjortsberg here is that of textual self-erasure – the object (the identity of Harry Angel) is written (for the majority of the text), then removed (Harry Angel IS Johnny Favorite), and then written differently (as in the quotation above – Harry talks as Johnny). The result of this negation and rewriting is to leave the reader ‘hesitating between alternative, competing sequences,’ as McHale puts it (102). By initially maintaining the stability of the detective role and identity, Hjortsberg has engaged the reader’s emotional attachment to Harry Angel. The domination of the text by Harry’s identity, and its erasure at the conclusion to the novel, leave the reader reeling. McHale notes that ‘endings constitute a special case of self-erasing sequences, since they occupy one of the most salient positions in any text’s structure’ (109), and the sudden withdrawal of the detective’s identity forces the reader to totally deconstruct their previous reading of the novel. Ironically, upon rereading the text, the reader inevitably discovers numerous allusions and hints to Angel’s split self, and also to Louis Cyphre’s true identity, which seems so blatant that the reader questions how they failed to spot the ingenious play on the Devil’s name beforehand. Most importantly, the reader realizes the importance of Harry’s nightmares, in which he is constantly switching between the hunter and hunted, in which he constantly changes identity and role, and in which Louis Cyphre is a constant haunting presence: “Cyphre laughed and hurled the dripping heart of his victim high into the air. The victim was me.” (235)

In Memento, despite the innovative and revealing reversal of the narrative direction caused by Leonard’s memory problem, the director still maintains a stability in his identity, and role as detective, until the last few minutes of the film. Although Leonard is constantly forced to revise his position in relation to others, and his feelings towards Teddy and Natalie, this position is always that of the investigator, determined to find John G, who ‘raped and murdered my wife.’ The identity is a limited one, since Leonard’s memory refuses and erases any development beyond the basis of memories he still has from before ‘the incident.’ However, he has ‘a reason’, and this constant quest becomes enough even for the audience, who gain emotional attachment to Leonard in his grief for his lost love. Once again, though, it is at the end of the film that the detective is finally questioned, and Teddy’s revelation is complicated further by the audience’s questioning of who can and should be trusted as telling the truth: “Teddy: So you lie to yourself to be happy. There’s nothing wrong with that….Your wife surviving the assault. Her not believing your condition. The torment and pain and anguish tearing her up inside…the insulin.”

Yet the audience can still maintain their emotional link to Leonard until Teddy (if we believe him) says that ‘the real John G’ is already dead, already killed by Leonard a year ago (‘we found him, you killed him. But you didn’t remember’). He is no longer an avenger, but a multiple killer, and it is at this stage that the audience is forced to realize not simply Leonard’s hidden self, but the subjective state of his entire identity. Quite literally, he has been forced ‘to make up your own truth.’ His identity is solely that of ‘playing detective,’ and that is how Leonard decides it will continue – he writes ‘don’t believe his lies’ on Teddy’s photo, burns the photo of Leonard after killing John G, and makes his decision: “You think I just want another puzzle to solve? Another John G to look for? You’re a John G, so you can be my John G.”

The split self, in Memento, becomes supremely postmodern, for there is no dominant, no objective, no ‘real’ self that constitutes identity. Leonard chooses his own subjective identity, that of the detective, and his final speech of the film indicates the necessity of this choice for everyone in the postmodern world – man must create himself – ‘We all need memories to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different.’
The space of a fictional world is a construct, just as the characters and objects that occupy it are, or the actions that unfold within it. Typically, in realist and modernist writing, this spatial construct is organized around a perceiving subject, either a character or the viewing position adopted by a disembodied narrator. (McHale 45)

McHale goes on to say that in postmodernist fiction, ‘space…is less constructed than deconstructed by the text, or rather constructed and deconstructed at the same time’ (McHale, 45), and this is a result of the complication in the presentation of the narrator figure, which in Falling Angel and Memento is the detective. The theory that in postmodernity, identity is subjective and self-constructed, a text of thoughts and language to create an image of oneself, suggests equally that the textual worlds these characters narrate are also subjective and fluctuating constructs, likely (as in both the film and novel) to prove as unstable and ultimately ‘false’ as the detectives’ identities. McHale refers to work by sociologists such as Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, who believe that ‘social reality is a fictional construct,’ a ‘jigsaw puzzle of “subuniverses of meaning”’ (McHale 37) all jostling for position as the dominant world-view. These concepts work perfectly in our analysis of Memento as a postmodernist text, for the textual ‘world’ created in the film is forced, through the narrative’s reversal, to be constantly erased, reconstructed and revised. Each new segment of linear narrative action (lasting only a few minutes) successfully alters the audience’s perception of the previous segment, and is erased in its turn by the next. Throughout the story, each ‘objective’ reality is called into question almost as soon as it is created, and the audience is left wondering whether anyone can be trusted as giving the ‘truth’. We are forced to suspect Teddy, Natalie, and finally Leonard himself, and though the narrative sections are interspersed with a seemingly more constant reality (scenes shown in black and white and usually with Leonard on the phone), even this ‘truth’ is finally undermined when Leonard reads one of his own tattoos which tells him to ‘never answer the phone.’ Our faith in this particular world, which has lasted thus far, is broken as Leonard slams down the phone.

Berger and Luckmann further complicate the idea of world or reality, suggesting that even the fictional construct of social reality is interspersed by private ‘realities’ subjectively created by individuals: “While this shared reality constitutes the common ground of interaction among the members of society, these same members also experience a multiplicity of private or peripheral realities: dreaming, play, fiction, and so on.” (McHale, 37)

The sociologists note that ‘these other realities are felt to be marginal; it is the shared reality that is “paramount” (McHale, 37),’ but in both Memento and Falling Angel, it is precisely the loss of this ‘paramount reality’ (caused by the detectives’ memory loss) that causes their problems. Leonard cannot ‘make new memories,’ and thus is unable to ‘keep up’ with the paramount reality, while Harry’s loss of the past puts a gap in paramount reality (and his identity) which he cannot fill. The result of these problems is a reliance on subjective, ‘peripheral’ ‘enclaves’ (in Cohen and Taylor’s words, quoted McHale, 38) – self-constructed worlds – which thus dominate the narrative space of the texts until their deconstruction at the ends. The return of the ‘paramount reality’ at the end of both texts is the return of lost memories – Harry realizes the truth about Johnny Favorite, Leonard finds out he is repeating an already-completed investigation (and a false one at that). The audiences are forced to reinterpret Harry and Leonard’s narrations as subjective, not objective, and thus the majority of the texts are deconstructed by their own last minute revelations. Leonard’s speech at the end of Memento echoes the need for a paramount reality, whilst at the same time, he realizes that he is forfeiting ‘the truth’ for his own subjectively-created identity as detective and ‘good guy’: “I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions have meaning, even if I can’t remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still there….We all need memories to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different.”

This constant process of deconstruction of narrative worlds and assumptions, the constant erasure and reconstruction of ‘the truth’, is part of postmodern crime fiction’s tendency to refuse the closure a reader attempts to place on the text, and the detective story provides the ideal opportunity for this subversion and refusal, since it is, at its most conventional, a closed text. If postmodern crime fiction ‘plays’ on the detective figure, refusing his power to return order and indicating his subjectivity, then its main target is the detective-reader who attempts to ‘solve’ the text. Through its constant deconstruction of itself, and the ‘theories’ that the audience is creating about ‘whodunnit’, postmodern crime fiction undermines the power of what Umberto Eco calls ‘the empirical reader’ (Caesar, 123).

Eco has pointed out in his work on semiotics, and more particularly concerning detective fiction, the similarity of the roles of detective and reader, noting that ‘just as the detective “rewrites” the story produced by the criminal, so the reader, furnished with all the necessary clues, can solve the mystery and thus “write” the story that he is reading by himself’ (Eco 67). Eco further points out that most crime fiction creates for its reader a pointless task, asking the reader to ‘guess’ the solution to the mystery, when they know that they will eventually find out anyway. Thus the reader is normally in a comfortable role, in which they can delude themselves into believing their own sense of control over the text, and can often guess the conclusion: “As reader, one is allowed to discover only what one would have found out anyway. To attempt to ‘guess’ is only to hide from oneself the fact that the rules are loaded, and to accept a situation in which the individual’s brain might as well stop working. Detective fiction has created its reader.” (Eco, 68)

Postmodern crime fiction is not the first to attempt to baffle its readers’ attempts to ‘solve’ the text, in fact this is more of a convention than an exception, but it fits even more comfortably into the postmodernist space, since the reader has been deemed almost Godly by such early post-structuralists as Barthes (‘a texts’ unity lies not in its origin but in its destination’ – Barthes, 148). In his ‘The Death of the Author’, Barthes relegates the author to a position of insignificance, instead favouring the reader in ‘the role of actualizing or realizing the text’ (Caesar, 120). Whilst postmodern crime fiction does not reject entirely the reader’s role (indeed, Eco emphasizes it), it forces the reader to work harder to gain an understanding of a text. Eco’s ‘empirical reader’ is a danger to the text, an inflexible detective who ignores the author and assumes control over the text, determined to prove the ‘“true”, “objective”, or “definite”’ and Eco sees that this kind of detection leads to ‘a fruitless universalism which cannot get beyond the hypothesis that structures mirror objective features of reality and the human mind’ (Hüllen, 41-57).

In both Memento and Falling Angel, the texts force the reader to see their own inabilities as detectives, their failures as empirical readers. Falling Angel, by its last minute revelation of ‘true’ identities, deconstructs any theory the reader has developed from the text before this point – it forces the reader to reread, in the light of these revelations, and with the knowledge that they have been duped by the author. In a very different way, the viewer of Memento is forced to relinquish control of the text by the constant erasure of their assumptions based on one narrative sequence. Following the twists of a crime story can be difficult enough in a linear narrative, but in Memento’s reversed and fragmentary narrative, the reader is forced to realize the complete impossibility of their discovering a solution. It becomes obvious that the audience’s theories are only those the film encourages. In both texts, the author ‘plays’ on the detective-reader by forcing them to emotionally engage with characters and narrative ‘truths’ which constantly, or suddenly, reveal themselves to be subjective, unstable, or utterly false.

Through their innovative use of character and textual ‘worlds’, both Falling Angel and Memento prove themselves to be postmodernist crime fiction, not seeking to entirely create something ‘original’ (in a Modernist manner), but using and playing on the wealth of conventions that plague the detective fiction genre. In doing so, they particularly focus on the detective figure himself, the source of infallibility and trust in a narrative which is always complex. The detective figure is the point of stability in a chaotic world of crime, and by destabilizing this figure, postmodernist fiction undermines the power of the faithful detective-reader. The ‘dead’ author has his revenge, pointing out to the reader who loves ‘playing detective’ (Memento) the impossibility of knowing what is true, what is real, and destroying the detective’s ability to solve the mystery. ‘This time,’ as Harry Angel realizes, ‘the joke was on me’ (Hjortsberg, 289).

Copyright © 2002 Daniel Jones


Barthes, Roland, ‘The Death of the Author’, Image Music Text (London: Fontana Press, 1977), pp. 142-148

Caesar, Michael, Umberto Eco: Philosophy, Semiotics and the Work of Fiction (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999)

Doyle, Arthur Conan, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, The Complete Sherlock Holmes (New Lanark: Midpoint Press, 2001), pp. 70-76

Doyle, Arthur Conan, ‘The Red-Headed League’, The Complete Sherlock Holmes (New Lanark: Midpoint Press, 2001), pp. 76-82

Doyle, Arthur Conan, ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’, The Complete Sherlock Holmes (New Lanark: Midpoint Press, 2001), pp. 99-105

Eco, Umberto, Reflections on ‘The Name of the Rose’ (London: Seeter, 1985)

Hjortsberg, William, Falling Angel (Harpenden: No Exit Press, 1996)

Hüllen, Werner, ‘Semiotics narrated: Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose’, Semiotica, 64 (1987), 41-57

Jann, Rosemary, ‘Sherlock Holmes Codes the Social Body’, ELH, 57 (1990), 685-708

Knight, Stephen, ‘The Case of the Great Detective’, Sherlock Holmes: The Major Stories with Contemporary Critical Essays, ed. John Hodgson (New York: Bedford Books, 1994), pp. 368-380

McHale, Brian, Postmodernist Fiction (London: Methuen, 1987)

Nolan, Christopher, Memento (2000, Pathé)

Ruhm, Herbert (ed), The Hard-Boiled Detective: Stories from “Black Mask” Magazine, 1920-1951 (New York: Random House, 1977)

Thompson, Jim, A Hell of a Woman (New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1990)