The Observer Review: Bret Anthony Johnston’s Remember Me Like This


Bret Anthony Johnston is the stereotypical young literary author. He attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, received a James Michener Fellowship, was named a “5 under 35” writer by the National Book Foundation, and is currently the director of creative writing at Harvard University, all after publishing just one book of short stories. That was 2004’s Corpus Christi: Stories, winner of the 2005 Texas Institute of Letters’ Steven Turner Award for Best Work of First Fiction.

Remember Me Like This, then, is a stereotypical young literary author’s debut novel. It comes heavily hyped and praised, features beautiful prose and almost no plot, flirts with the trappings of a genre novel but dares not dirty its hands with the actual workings of one, and generally disappoints.

Remember Me Like This centers around Justin Campbell, kidnapped as an 11-year-old and held captive for four years before finally being found freely roaming a flea market only a few miles from home (which is a fictitious Texas town on the Gulf of Mexico, likely modeled on Johnston’s hometown of Corpus Christi). Someone recognizes Justin, and he’s reconnected with his family.

The novel, as the flap copy crows, starts in on this story where most novels would end it—with the Campbells reunited and struggling to deal with the aftermath of Justin’s kidnapping and long absence. It’s an interesting idea, but the idea is undone by its execution.

Most novels would end at the reunion because that’s where the compelling narrative features—such as actions taken to address mounting problems—dry up. There is no action to be taken against the post-traumatic challenges the Campbells have to endure. There are not, in fact, even any challenges. Instead there is the opposite of challenge. Action does not rise, but stretches calmly—a calm that discomfits the Campbells slightly, in ways they struggle to explain.

Remember Me Like This is a stereotypical young literary author’s debut novel.

That’s the vast majority of the novel: The Campbells feel various things about Justin’s kidnapping and about his return. They feel guilty, they feel relieved, they feel nervous, and on and on for hundreds of pages. When these feelings manifest in scenes of real emotion—such as the affecting and skillfully handled moment when the Campbells meet the flea market vendor who recognized Justin and called the police—Johnston’s skill with characterization comes through winningly.

Unfortunately, he too often relies on melodramatic metaphorical imagery, as when Justin feeds his pet snake two old feeder mice that their mother had adopted as pets, and Johnston describes the bulges in the snake’s body as “the sad and inevitable outlines of the past.” Just a few such self-indulgent metaphors might pass unnoticed, but Johnston ends almost every chapter with this kind of tortured prose.

Worse still, Johnston seems to want to have written a more dramatic novel, so he has shoehorned in thrilling-sounding scenes of conflict that end up as meaningless diversions. For example: Justin’s mother, Laura, volunteered at a marine mammal rescue center during the years Justin was missing. One day, after his return, she’s at the center when another volunteer calls her Mrs. Campbell, her real name, instead of Miss Wallace, the pseudonym, it is suddenly revealed, that she goes by at the rescue center.

Laura has a fit of paranoia and starts wondering how this man knows her real name. She thinks about it for weeks, and finally contrives an elaborate plan to skip a shift so that this name-knowing volunteer will get called in and she can confront him. This plays out in a 10-page scene told from multiple perspectives, like a spy thriller. Unlike a scene in a spy thriller, nothing comes of it. The volunteer is simply a cop from a nearby town who knows all about her family’s case. It turns out that the rest of the volunteers know Laura’s real name, too, because her son’s case is quite famous, and so is she.

All of this is meant, I presume, to tell readers that Mrs. Campbell is frazzled and traumatized, her delusions of anonymity shattered. But since the issue generates neither interest nor conflict, it does nothing to push the narrative forward. It does, however, indicate that Johnston understands the kinds of elements a good novel should be made of, even if the strategy of starting the novel’s action after the mystery has been solved handcuffs his ability to deliver them.

This kind of false conflict infects even the plot twist readers are promised at the start—the Campbells’ intent to take revenge on the kidnapper—and so the dominant experience of reading this book is that of watching an author attempt to write drama into scenes in which nothing of consequence actually happens.

Johnston has tremendous facility with language, and when he imbues a scene with real conflict, I was interested and invested. But those scenes are few and far between, and without convincing drama, the story never gains traction.