Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

"Memory Wall" by Anthony Doerr (Fourth Estate, 2012)

I was disappointed by the title story. It's set near Cape Town in a world where, anachronistically (as SF as Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never let me go"), memories can be extracted from minds, stored in cartridges, then replayed in the mind of the original donor or someone else. Alma has dementia and has paid to have thousands of her memories harvested.

She reaches for the photo of Harold and fingers its corner a moment. "Sometimes," she says, "I have trouble remembering things."
Behind her, our the window, the fog cycles and cycle. The sky is invisible. The neighbor's rooftops are gone. The garden is gone. Everything is white. "I know, Mrs. Alma," Pheko says.

There's a black market for cartridges. Levo has broken into Alma's house and has relived many of the old lady's memories. He has discovered where her late husband found a valuable fossil. He wanders alone in the wilderness for days (a literary trend) seeking the location. While doing so, other memories return and analogies burst in

  • Remember a memory often enough and you can create a new memory, the memory of remembering (p.71)
  • For a fossil to happen is a miracle. One in fifty million. The rest of us? We disappear into the grass, into beetles, into worms. Into ribbons of light (p.71)

Doerr typically uses lists to accumulate detail - Pheko gets off at Site C and hurries along a line of shanties in the rain. Windchimes tinkle. A goat picks its way through puddles. Torpid men perch on fenders of gutted taxis or upended fruit crates or beneath ragged tarps. Someone a few alleys over lights a firework and it blooms and fades over the rooftops (p.15). I didn't like the "Nightmare" section.

"Procreate, Generate" is just another "trying to have a baby" story. That too mentions memories that struggle to embed - "All morning she sits at her computer and drowns in memory ... "No parents, no husband, no children," a blind woman once told her. Her gaze was a vacuum. Imogene did not know where to look. "I am a tribe of one."" (p.94).

In "The Demilitarized Zone" the main character lives in the US. His father has Alzheimer's. His son is serving near Seoul and doesn't know that his parents have separated. The son writes a letter to his father about how "two cranes came soaring out of the DMZ, as silent as gods. They were maybe forty feet away when one hit a communications wire and went down". I presume the birds part-symbolise his parents. The son picked the bird up. It died and he buried it without permission - "Unauthorized Absence, AWOL". He's not court-martialed. He's flown home, ill.

In "Village 113" a Chinese village will be flooded because of a dam project. An old woman doesn't want to leave. "Memory is a house with ten thousand rooms; it is a village slated to be inundated" (p.131). Later, "Every stone, every stair, is a key to a memory" (p.146). The job of her son who lives in a big city is to clear the villages somehow or other.

"The River Nnemunas" begins "My name is Allison. I'm fifteen years old. My parents are dead. I have a poodle named Mishap in a pet carrier between my ankles and a biography of Emily Dickinson in my lap" (p.157). She's going to live with her Lithuanian grandfather. She befriends a slightly senile old lady. She tried to convince people that there are sturgeons in the river. Later she wonders "about how memories can be here one minute and then gone the next" (p.175).

"Afterworld" (my favourite story of the book) flips between 2 time-lines: Ester at 6 (a Jewish orphan in Hamburg), and Ester at 81 in the USA. Her grandson Robert is recording interviews for his history thesis. She's increasingly epileptic and goes into hospital - "A plastic EEG recording cap, studded with dozens of wired electrodes, is installed on her head" (p.203) (harking back to "Memory Wall") "... the drugs make her feel as if she looks out at her room through flooded googles" (p.204). Dr Rosenbaum helped little Ester escape to the States, and Robert helps her discharge herself from hospital. "Memory becomes her enemy" (p.235). After Ester's been dead for a while, "Every hour, Robert thinks, all over the globe, an infinite number of memories disappear, whole glowing atlases dragged into graves. But during that same hour children are moving about, survey territory that seems to them entirely new. They push back the darkness; they scatter memories behind them like bread crumbs. The world is remade" (p.242)

In "The Deep" a boy born in Detroit, 1914, has a heart condition which means he's not expected to live much beyond his 18th birthday. To relax he's told to think of something blue. A girl takes a fancy to him and gets him to pump air down to her while she explores the bottom of a lake. Times are hard. His mother leaves him when he's 18. When he's 21 he meets his childhood sweetheart again. She has a baby. He thinks its eyes will be blue.

In the Acknowledgments he writes "watching [my mother] care for her mother taught me about patience, love, and the fragility of memory".

Other reviews

  • Justine Jordan ("Memory Wall" and "Afterworld", which also takes a sideways view of an old woman's memories, are the stand-out pieces in the collection. … apart from the tendency to show his workings, this collection is an impressively rich and nuanced consideration of memory, time and loss. Doerr is a lusciously good stylist whose inner journeys and outer travels are equally fascinating to follow. )
  • Terrence Rafferty (“It’s the rarest thing, Luvo thinks, that gets preserved, that does not get erased, broken down, transformed.” That, in a way, is the theme of every story in “Memory Wall.” ... He’s one of those rare writers able to turn idiosyncrasies, even outright flaws, into virtues. Everything, in the end, becomes evidence of a temperament, a way of looking at the world, that isn’t quite like anybody else’s. If Doerr chooses to overelaborate his metaphors, it’s perhaps because he doesn’t want us to waste time figuring them out ourselves )
  • David Evans
  • Jessica Freeman-Slade (Sometimes the metaphors Doerr employs are a bit trite—yes, fossils represent memories, we may have seen this coming—but each perspective is so genuinely articulated that snark doesn’t seem necessary. It is rare to find an author whose voice feels artless and sincere; even if the story might feel predictable, we have to applaud his guilelessness)

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