Review of “The Great Forgetting” by James Renner

This is a novel about conspiracy theories; the way in which many of them may have a ring of truth; and what might be the implications if even some of them were true. The author ties a number of these theories together to construct a story which centers around Jack Felter, a history teacher in Ohio, his sister Jean, and their father, a former pilot they call “the Captain.”


When Jack goes back to his hometown because Jean thinks their father is about to die, Jack runs into his former “true love,” Sam (Samantha), now alone after having been deserted by her husband and Jack’s former best friend, Tony Sanders. Sam wants Jack to help her find Tony’s body (most people believe he committed suicide) so she can collect the much-needed insurance money and have closure. It turns out that the key to finding out what actually happened to Tony is Cole Monroe, a teenaged patient in a mental facility where Tony worked as a psychiatrist.

Cole says Tony is alive and he knows where he is. He quickly pulls Jack into his (allegedly) paranoid mindset about an interconnected web of conspiracies, just as he had apparently done with Tony. They then set out on a journey to find Tony, and “save the world” from the constant obfuscation of truth and memory.

The author cites research relating to a number of conspiracy theories [he had me going often to Google to check into the allegations], from Amelia Earhart’s disappearance to the Holocaust to suspicions about fluoride in the water to 9/11 and even to the recent disappearance of Malaysian Flight 370. He also includes a number of real characters such as Edward Snowden, Stephen Hawking, and the Koch Brothers. In addition, the story is replete with literary references.

Some of what he writes is exceedingly clever, but I think he veers off course by adopting and expanding upon the notion of “phantom time,” the idea that historians have messed with the calendar by eliminating whole eras and then altering memories of history during the eliminated time periods. He is also a bit heavy-handed in hammering in the notion that memory and history are socially and politically contingent, and therefore quite malleable. I think he would have been more effective in making that point if he had provided some examples not related to conspiracy theories, such as, for example, the regular refashioning of justifications for going to war, or the determined rewriting of antebellum history by the American South. It would have also been a bit more convincing than the over-the-top leap of the plot to effectuate a “great forgetting.”

Evaluation: This unusual story will remind you of “The Twilight Zone” (and in fact there are a number of epigraphs by Rod Serling), Kurt Vonnegut, scifi writer James K.Morrow, Stephen King, and even road-trip adventures. It’s quirky and scary and funny, but I think overall, the author went a little too far. He could have used the same themes to create a more realistic story, which would have been more engaging.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015

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3 Responses to Review of “The Great Forgetting” by James Renner

  1. Beth F says:

    I think this might be a little over the top for me — esp. when it gets into historians altering time and memory.

  2. Vance and I were just talking about all the conspiracy theories surrounding Denver’s airport. The premise of this sounds interesting.

  3. litandlife says:

    What a bummer this one didn’t live up to its potential because it really should have been quite fascinating.

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