Thursday, February 3, 2011

Memory Wall

Too much to read. Isn't that a wonderful problem to have? I've finally gotten Emma Donogue's "Room" from the library, but I also just got Tom Rachman's "The Imperfectionists." I have to reread Nicole Krauss' great "History of Love" for my library's bookclub next week, and I also have a dozen books to help me with research in my own would-be novel.

Right now, though, I'm still stuck in the beauty that was Anthony Doerr's latest story collection, "Memory Wall." The six stories in the collection are connected not by character or setting (think "Olive Kitteridge") but by theme. Each seeks to understand or describe the pull of memory; each lingers on how memory shapes our identity as well as our impressions of the world around us.

Doerr quotes from Luis Buñuel's autobiography, "My Last Sigh," to begin the book:
You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all, just as an intelligence without the possibility of expression is not really an intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.
The titular first piece in the collection is an 80-page novella. Doerr wrote it in response to a call by Dave Eggers' McSweeney's (issue 32) to "travel somewhere in the world and imagine life there in 2024." Doerr imagines a South Africa in which scientists are experimenting with treatments for dementia. "We don't offer a cure," says Dr. Amnesty of Cape Town Memory Research Center, "but we might be able to slow it down. We might be able to give you some memories back." Alma is seventy-four years old and the widow of a fossil hunter. She visits the clinic where Dr. Amnesty records her memories onto cartridges and then sends her home. Later, on her own, she can "plug in" these cartridges and re-experience positive memories, like falling in love with her husband, going on trips with him. But in this near-future, Doerr imagines a black market for these memory cartridges, sold on the street, like drugs. A man, believing Alma's husband to have been on the verge of discovering a major fossil, sneaks in to her house at night and has a young boy plug into the cartridges and search for clues. Over the course of two or three years, fifteen-year-old Luvo has gone through hundreds of Alma's experiences, in no kind of chronological order, seeking the information the man wants.

The plot may seem convoluted, but because it's told over 80 pages, not 30, Doerr has room to build it. We see Alma's slow decline juxtaposed with clear visions of her memories from childhood to old age. The context is apartheid and its lingering effects.

The last story, "Afterworld," also focuses on an older woman and her struggles with memory. Esther Gramm, born in 1927, grew up in an orphanage in Germany. Parts of the story are told when she's in her seventies or eighties, living in Ohio; parts of the action take place in Germany, as the world around her changes. She struggles with the guilt that she escaped the horrors of Nazi Germany while the girls she lived with didn't. One interesting thing I noticed is that both the parts in 1939-1942 Germany and 2009 Ohio are told in present tense. The reader is never confused about the setting until the two become conflated for Esther: "Why, Esther wonders, do any of us believe our lives lead outward through time? How do we know we aren't continually traveling inward, toward our centers?" Like "Memory Wall," this story builds, layer upon layer as the characters, their thoughts, and their experiences are revealed.

In an interview with, Doerr says
Ultimately I'm trying to write stories inside which a reader is transported; I want readers to have an experience that allows them to enter the time and place and life of someone else. And I want that experience of empathy to be continuous; I don't want the dream of the fiction to be broken by any carelessness on my part. That's the most I can hope for: that a reader might leave his or her world for an hour or two and enter the world of one of my characters. And if a reader is going to be nice enough to read one of my stories, it's up to me to make that world as convincing and seamless as possible.

Jane Smiley wrote in "13 Ways of Looking at the Novel" that it can be difficult for short story-writers to transition to novelist. Or, at least, that it requires a change of mindset. I've contended that short stories more resemble poetry than they do novels, and she clarifies that point. She argues that
in short stories, perfection is a valid goal, and it is fairly easy, psychologically, to go on perfecting a short story for several months without losing sight of the whole piece. The same with poems. But when the whole of the work is a hundred thousand words rather than two thousand words, you simply have to get those words down on paper or you don't even have anything to think about or work with. A novel comes alive, even to its author, as it precipitates onto the page. If you prevent it from going forward by polishing each bit, it is much harder for it to take on its own being. (221)
After reading something like "Memory Wall," or the trifecta of stories that conclude Jhumpa Lahiri's "Unaccustomed Earth," I have to remind myself that my goal isn't 30 perfect pages, or even 80. It's 200 or so messy pages that hopefully, when read in sequence, engages and entertains.


Aki Mori said...

I love your rich usage of quotes. My favorite is, "I don't want the dream of the fiction to be broken by any carelessness on my part."

August said...

Isn't that a great one? It reminds me of something Jonathan Franzen said (I think I quoted it too, a couple months ago), that the point of a novel is to take the reader to a "still" place. I think the best writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, does that.