TOKYO DOESN'T LOVE US ANYMORE

By Ray Loriga. Translated from the Spanish by John King

Grove. 260 pp. Paperback, $12 Spanish novelist Ray Loriga's gorgeous, enigmatic new novel, Tokyo Doesn't Love Us Anymore, could be described in terms of its premise: the story of a traveling salesman with a pill called STM, "short term memory eroder," which can target a memory and erase it precisely. But such a description cheats the prospective reader, because the true genius of Loriga's book, beautifully translated by John King, is how its shape takes inspiration from its story. Its premise is an occasion for art.

The book begins among barren hotel rooms in barren Arizona, as our narrator makes his way along his sales route. At first, he presents his STM buyers in comic bits: "Franz wanted to forget a love affair and Otto wanted to forget a promise made without thinking"; another man forgets the name of his dog "while he was trying to forget a tune that had got stuck in his head." Very early on, however, slippages appear in the storytelling -- "Apparently my sister has killed herself with a shotgun. The strange thing is that I can't recollect having a sister" -- and the book begins to feel like something that might fall apart in our hands. He hints at the reason: The Company, his employer, insists on constant blood tests. They are worried about " 'dead zones' in my diary," just as we readers are concerned about blank spaces in the story: for instance, red-shoed Otto, whom our narrator quickly forgets and just calls "a strange man with some ridiculous shoes." Very soon we realize our storyteller is taking his own drug.

Other authors whose influence this writer clearly feels -- Ray Bradbury, William Gibson, Kurt Vonnegut -- might have played this twist as action or satire, and that would have made a clever novel, but Loriga bravely ignores cleverness. Instead, the novel reads as desolate and terribly sad. His inventions reveal a despair at the heart of humanity, from the Thai child prostitutes whose memories are "burnt up on a daily basis in order to preserve the sexual innocence required by refined European sexual tourists" to the "reincarnation programme" that brings a dead mother back to life on a small black-and-white monitor. In one of the book's most haunting scenes, the narrator talks to this machine and to the dead woman's son, Feunang, who wants the drug so he can forget the mother he has kept alive electronically. "That machine," Feunang's sister says, "is killing him." The tenderness and restraint with which Loriga writes both this scene and Feunang's eventual fate show a subtle and striking talent.

"Memory is like the most stupid dog," Loriga writes, "you throw it a stick and it brings you any old thing," and this could be a description of the structure of this book, fascinating even up to its vague and limp conclusion. Amid the eloquent phrases -- "it leaves you like a Christ held up by only one nail" -- are blanks and gaps; the pages feel eaten through by bookworms so that you are left to piece together the story. At his best, the narrator is no help, for when he is taken in by the Company at last -- the STM having made his brain into "a colander, an open net through which all the fish slip" -- he is unable even to remember what town he is in, and discovers every morning anew it is Berlin. Only an experimental technique -- an extended temporal visit to his love -- is able to give him a memory, which is heartbreaking because we know it, too, will soon be lost.

Throughout, the storyteller indulges in hedonism, taking every color of pill, sleeping with countless women and men and boys and girls, but he never comes across as enviable or jaded. Because he forgets so much, he glows with innocence. And it is this terrible innocence that redeems his storytelling. In that, and in his language, Loriga is indebted to an unexpected artist: Samuel Beckett. That writer's Molloy, speaking of similarly cursed Sisyphus, wondered: "Perhaps he thinks each journey is the first. This would keep hope alive, would it not, hellish hope." Here is the drug Loriga's narrator offers, and this book, brilliantly marrying style and story, shows the hell at the heart of that hope. *

Andrew Sean Greer's most recent novel is "The Confessions of Max Tivoli."