When Memory Fades But Life Goes On

November 10 2014
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My grandmother suffers from an advanced stage of dementia and, in the last several years, I have learned some unexpected things about how memory works. When my family and I were first adjusting to her condition we had to learn to operate on her terms, to inhabit her view of the present. We learned that, for her, memory and reality were the same: all time had come to exist at once. It did no good to correct her when she said her mother had just come to visit, or to stop her from setting a place at the table for her older brother. We learned instead to talk to her in the present tense about long-dead family members. In time, we ourselves almost forgot that they were gone. We told her that her uncle was staying in a hotel and had gone to the store that morning to buy mangoes for all of us. We told her that her brother, her teenage grandson, and Benny Goodman had formed a clarinet trio together. These weren’t lies. They were real to her.

I have learned that memory is fluid. I have felt the urge we all feel to cling to it, and I have seen the wonderful and terrible things that can happen when it is altered, interrupted, or obliterated. When I picked up Memory Wall, Anthony Doerr’s 2010 short story collection, I found a gorgeously articulated illustration of these very themes.

In these six stories (seven, including an extra story that was added to the paperback edition) memory is both amplified and suppressed by hallucinations, dreams, dementia, epilepsy, and other compromising conditions. We also see what can happen to a person’s memory in the spaces between those episodes. But Doerr doesn’t stop at examining the stresses put upon the mind by internal factors. His stories also address the passage of time and the coming of change, the role of family and the importance of place, and the effect all of these elements have on the way we perceive and remember the events of our lives.

Some stories deal with the loss of memory, such as the title story about a woman diagnosed with dementia whose remaining memories are recorded for preservation on plastic cartridges. “The River Nemunas” is not just about memory loss but about the effect of loss on memory, as an orphaned teenager seeks solace from grief by taking her senile neighbor fishing in the polluted river where her mother once fished. Indeed, the themes of lost memories, lost hopes, lost pasts, and lost futures are key to all of the stories: “Procreate, Generate,” about a young couple struggling to conceive, “Village 113,” about a town condemned to be submerged under a lake with the building of a new dam, and “The Demilitarized Zone,” about a man balancing a collapsed marriage, a father with dementia, and a son far away in the military.

Doerr also explores an idea I learned from my grandmother: that sometimes, whether or not a memory or an experience is “real” has no bearing on its worth. In the collection’s beautiful final story “Afterworld,” a Holocaust survivor suffers chronic seizures, and as a result has vivid hallucinations that include scenes of her childhood friends and others she once knew, many of them in strange and impossible landscapes. These visions become vital to her whole existence, and they both save and endanger her life time and time again. Though her doctors, friends, and family try to discredit them as mere fantasies, these scenes are as true as any “real” moment in her life.

These stories take place many years and miles apart, and yet the characters are in constant conversation. As though in answer to the infertile couple in “Procreate, Generate,” the main character in “Village 113” wonders, “Embryo, seed coat, endosperm: What is a seed if not the purest kind of memory, a link to every generation that has gone before it?” And when that same character thinks, “Every memory everyone has ever had will eventually be underwater. Progress is a storm and the wings of everything are swept up in it,” the young protagonist of “The River Nemunas” is determined to reel those sunken memories back in: “I heave the rod up, crank in a couple turns of line…It’s not a fish. I know it’s not a fish. It’s just a big lump of memory at the bottom of the River Nemunas.”

And then there’s the writing itself. Doerr’s descriptions are breathtaking. Metaphors that might seem clichéd or overwrought in the hands of a lesser writer are delicate and powerful in Doerr’s. It’s impossible not to marvel at what the author has done here, and not at all difficult to see why this collection won the Story Prize in 2010.

But then again, Doerr’s prose is always masterful. His most recent novel, All the Light We Cannot See, is now a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award, and his writing there is as lovely as ever. But I will always be partial to his short fiction.

Memory Wall is magnificent. It is at once sad, hopeful, and ultimately, I found, comforting.

Memory Wall
Anthony Doerr

In the wise and beautiful second collection from the acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning #1 New York Times bestselling author of All the Light We Cannot See, and Cloud Cuckoo Land, "Doerr writes about the big questions, the imponderables, the major metaphysical dreads, and he does it fearlessly" (The New York Times Book Review).

Set on four continents, Anthony Doerr's new stories are about memory, the source of meaning and coherence in our lives, the fragile thread that connects us to ourselves and to others. Every hour, says Doerr, all over the globe, an infinite number of memories disappear. Yet at the same time children, surveying territory that is entirely new to them, push back the darkness, form fresh memories, and remake the world.

In the luminous and beautiful title story, a young boy in South Africa comes to possess an old woman's secret, a piece of the past with the power to redeem a life. In "The River Nemunas," a teenage orphan moves from Kansas to Lithuania to live with her grandfather, and discovers a world in which myth becomes real. "Village 113," winner of an O'Henry Prize, is about the building of the Three Gorges Dam and the seed keeper who guards the history of a village soon to be submerged. And in "Afterworld," the radiant, cathartic final story, a woman who escaped the Holocaust is haunted by visions of her childhood friends in Germany, yet finds solace in the tender ministrations of her grandson.

Every story in Memory Wall is a reminder of the grandeur of life--of the mysterious beauty of seeds, of fossils, of sturgeon, of clouds, of radios, of leaves, of the breathtaking fortune of living in this universe. Doerr's language, his witness, his imagination, and his humanity are unparalleled in fiction today.

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