Real Time Short Stories

Real Time Reads: “Memory Wall” by Anthony Doerr

Posted on: November 17, 2011

We associate the loss of memory with old age, illness, trauma, and thereby with disruptions to our lives, the decay of our existence as individuals. Yet, in considering all the details of the lives we have led, we forget with more aptitude than we remember. Indeed, our memories, those possessions we come about by virtue of remembering, are sculpted from forgetfulness (My lasting memory…; the memory I take from those years is of that one day…): it is only through all that voracious forgetting that we can identify, retrieve and encapsulate the moments we call memories that may be taken to amount to the stories of our lives.

The idea of “real time” that lies behind this blog relates to this idea of the single moment, that forms the basis of the short story and manages to present a passage of life that moves along much as our experience of living does. If (unlike Mrs Scum here!) you’re familiar with Henri Bergson‘s theories of Duration, you will have a sense of the discrepancy between real time, which is what we experience internally, and “mathematical time”, which is external, standardised and measurable but which, Bergson suggests, doesn’t provide a framework for understanding life. Instead, we have the accretion of consciousness – the knowledge, I suppose, of first how to live and then, within the ongoing process, of having lived – which itself depends on the accumulation of memory.

It’s appealing, from a short story point of view, to think of life as a collection of encapsulated happenings or intense bursts of consciousness, because that may be seen to equate to the stuff that generates and frames short stories. My preoccupation with the café story is a perfect example: the time spent in a café allows for a self-contained narrative to rise and fall; it is enough time for a memory to take shape, for an epiphany (an idea associated in short fiction with James Joyce) to take place; it is not so long that external mechanisms are needed to move the story along. A similar concentration of real time, physical space and circumstance is provided by a train journey, as depicted in a story appearing in this week’s Guardian by Helen Simpson; in the Ernest Hemingway classic, Hills Like White Elephants, the central characters are both in a bar and waiting for a train, and their euphemistic conversation would lose all its power if we then witnessed them go on to enact the thing they are discussing. These are hermetic spaces – enclosed in time and/or space, beyond the effects of an external world, within which we can witness experiences of life that ring true. So the stories are self-contained and their shortness is a necessity of their entirely natural status as fragments of consciousness.

Anthony Doerr‘s title story from his debut collection, published this year by Fourth Estate in the UK, Memory Wall, provides an immediate challenge to the simple adoption of hermetic narrative space as a short phase of time, or a confined area of physical space. It also challenges the apparently superficial but nonetheless troublesome boundaries between short, not quite as short and long versions of fiction. Memory Wall is a novella, by virtue of the fact that it comfortably exceeds the notional 8,000-word limit for what would be considered a short story, but it is not the length, nor has it the construction, of a novel. Novellas, typically defined as works of fewer than approximately 50,000 words, are troubling to short fiction because – unlike the Legoworld of short short stories or flash fiction, Hemingway’s six-word stories (“For sale: baby’s shoes. Never worn.”) and tweet-length stories – they are not seen as a sub-let within the building of short fiction but in a different block. They are novellas because they are not short stories; they are not short stories because they are not short.

In his essay, Notes On The Novella (in Charles E. May ed. The New Short Story Theories), Graham Good makes the case that the focus on word count makes the definition of the novella arbitrary, that the roots of the word are in European literary traditions which didn’t necessarily determine a division of fiction into three archetypes defined by length, and that by defining a novella in terms of its properties places it at odds with the novel but within the same bracket as the erstwhile short story – which Good argues may as well be called a novella in order to eradicate the irrelevant element of size-ism. Having already called into question the nature of time, I’ll just say that this blog is called Real Time Short Stories and, unless Graham Good wants to pay for me to re-market it, that’s how it’s staying. However, we can be persuaded that our understanding of story length can be flexible where my notion of hermetic space is presented and examined. And it is in the way that Anthony Doerr’s novella deals with the encapsulation of experiences, not to mention the prose that’s so intimate it stings, that makes Memory Wall an essential reference point.

Alma Konachek is old, 74; she is ill with Alzheimer’s; and she has experienced the traumatic death of her paleontologist husband, Harold. Moreover, and not unlike her husband’s fossils, she is a remnant of a South Africa that has gone and is now best treated with selective amnesia. Named with a heavy nod to the post-apartheid Truth and Renconciliation Commission, the pioneering Dr Amnesty is enabling Alma to piece back together her past by accessing her memories via a library of cassettes, whose spools give witness to the moments of Alma’s life lying fossilised in her subconscious. Through the cassettes, Alma is reconnected to her younger self; through them, her Harold is still alive and talking to her:

“We think we’re supposed to be here,” he continued, “but it’s all just dumb luck, isn’t it?” He turned to her, about to explain, and as he did shadows rushed in from the edges like ink, flowering over the entire scene, blotting the vaulted ceiling, and the schoolgirl who’d been spitting into the fountain, and finally young Harold himself in his too small khakis. The remote device whined; the cartridge ejected; the memory crumpled in on itself.

Alma blinked and found herself clutching the footboard of her guest bed, out of breath, three miles and five decades away. She unscrewed the headgear. Out the window a thrush sang chee-chweeeoo. Pain swung through the roots of Alma’s teeth. “My god,” she said.

The cassettes fill a wall – the Memory Wall of the title – of her home in suburban Cape Town and somewhere among their number is the memory that will reveal the location of a gorgon skull and fossilised skeleton discovered by Harold just before his death and Alma’s subsequent regression. Memories – not least the floral, fragrant memories of affluent, elderly white women – have an illicit street value in the new South Africa. There is a parallel with soma, the drug of choice in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World: “All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.” Alma’s memory has added value, though, with a historic find awaiting the owners of the cassette. Roger, a softer version of Bill Sikes, has enlisted fifteen-year-old Luvo to help him steal the cassette. Every night, they break into Alma’s home, disrupt her sleep and add new layers of confusion to her already fluctuating grasp of reality. While Roger detains the old woman, Luvo plugs himself into cassette after cassette, a 15-year-old black boy with the multiplicity of life experiences of a 74-year-old white woman shuddering through his brain each night.

Luvo stands in Alma’s upstairs bedroom in the middle of the night and hears Harold Konachek whispering as if from the grave: We all swirl slowly down into the muck. We all go back to the mud. Until we rise again in ribbons of light.

This wind, Luvo realizes, right now careering around Alma’s garden, has come to Cape Town every November that he can remember, and every November Alma can remember, and it will come next November, too, and the next, and on and on, for centuries to come, until everyone they have ever known and everyone they will ever know is gone.

With its near-future concept of technology to harvest the recesses of the mind, and its criminal story dynamic, Memory Wall had every right to have been a dystopian, sci-fi thriller and be done with that. Depicted by a writer from Idaho, the South African setting could easily have been rendered with the same cosy exotica as Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana. It’s not for reasons of length that the story provides a challenging but rewarding detour in our travels around the hermetic spaces of short fiction (although it’s worth noting that, of the six beautifully-crafted stories in his collection, the two that would qualify as novellas – the other one being the finale, Afterword – are the most mesmeric): what Doerr manages to do is move beyond the clear outlines demarcating confined narrative space and time yet he advances the sense of complete stories fitting within sealed perceptual units.

Alma and Luvo, also Pheko, who came to work as the Konacheks’ houseboy in the apartheid era and who struggles to raise his five-year-old son, Temba, in their township accommodation, and the amoral Roger, not to mention the Harold and the gorgon fossil, all occupy a space in which each possesses an element of one another’s existence. There is to be no movement beyond this encapsulated existence until a resolution has been reached, achieved primarily through Luvo’s weary, bittersweet epiphany and a journey to the coast, where waves will wash away these memories that keep dead loves alive; those that scientists invent machines in order to excavate and that criminals plot to steal; eroded memories that are craved by those with no future and barely even a present.

9 Responses to "Real Time Reads: “Memory Wall” by Anthony Doerr"

Very interesting but a lot to digest. Working with older people and understanding dementia is my work, so I sort of got sidetracked into thinking about that. It’s fascinating and strange, the structure of remembering. How the older the memory is, the more it’s built up of layers of remembering the memory on top of remembering the event itself. Hmmm. I’ll get back to you if I anything that makes sense emerges….

Memories are surprising. In the first passage I quoted from the Anthony Doerr story, Alma is remembering her husband from 50 years before but, while that has obvious emotional force, what I found particularly powerful was that she was also encountering herself at that young age.

And, in a way, that may be the bigger task of memory: remembering our own selves. We have rituals for remembering others we have lost and we remember things (a few of my 20-year-old undergraduates yesterday were discussing the nostalgic details of popular culture in the 1990s when they were growing up) and events (my two boys often reminisce about a Saturday morning in our old flat when we discovered that they both share my double-jointedness in the ring fingers, and we spent an hour, sitting in my bed playing “freaky fingers” – they talk of it like Christopher Isherwood remembering Berlin but it was only two years ago), but being back inside the thoughts and emotions of that person we were at that time is a more profound sensation, I think.

I have an internal showreel of cringe-inducing moments, I suspect others may have too. But being inside a previous skin of one’s own, that might only happen at the odd insightful moment, probably a good thing so we can get on. My Benjamin (aged 6) has little reminiscences about things from a year or two back. Today on the way home from school, it was the school dinner lady who he used to hold hands with in the playground when he was 4, and he used to take a different bus timetable to show her every Friday.

DaddyPig’s comment about the memory of the event being on top of the actual event itself led me to think about how much of that topsoil memory is fictionalised. This in turn leads me back to thinking about a much loved poem by Fernando Pessoa- There was a moment. I’ve posted the poem below:

There was a moment
When you let
Settle on my sleeve
(More a movement
Of fatigue, I believe,
Than any thought)
Your hand. And drew it
Away. Did I
Feel it, or not?

Don’t know. But remember
And still feel
A kind of memory,
Firm, corporeal,
At the place where you laid
The hand, which offered
Meaning – a kind of,
Uncomprehended –
But so softly…
All nothing, I know.
There are, though,
On a road of the kind
Life is, things – plenty –

Do I know whether,
As I felt your hand
Settle into place
Upon my sleeve
And a little, a little,
In my heart,
There was not a new
Rhythm in space?

As though you,
Without meaning to,
Had touched me
Inside, to say
A kind of mystery,
Sudden, ethereal,
And not known
That it had been.

So the breeze
In the boughs says
Without knowing
An imprecise
Joyful thing.

I posted this poem previously on The Reader Organisation’s blog:

I’m also thinking about lines read in a John Koethe poem:

“In the small mythologies
We make up out of memories and the flow of time
A few moments remain frozen, though the feel of them is lost,
The feel of talk.”

When I think back on my own memories, they feel separate, like beads on a rosary. They are on this necklace of time but are distinct in themselves. And those distinctions make me distrust them. Memories are often hard to contextualise because they are messy. Still thinking…

That poem does capture how the more one tries to get at a memory, the more elusive it can become.

I suppose the use of flashback in film is effective because it mirrors how we perceive our memories, as discrete beads, as you say, or clips. Thinking on the theme of Alzheimers Disease, it’s especially effective in Elvis Costello’s video for Veronica

Some great added insights from the poetry and the music – Pessoa’s idea of a memory as “firm, corporeal” is very persuasive, and the way Veronica’s memories in Elvis Costello’s song revolve around not just the large, novelistic narratives of life (adult life, at that) but incidental episodes, games of hide-and-seek as a child. Thinking about flashbacks, I’m reminded of the way the memory of the Sean Penn character works in Mallick’s The Tree Of Life, which I’ve mentioned before on here – sometimes vague, sometimes so precise in the sensory detail.

If our consciousness is constructed from such fragmentary experiences, sometimes selected at random and often without regard to a hierarchy of memory, we could all be said to have a largely improvised sense of who we are at any present moment.

I was inspired thinking about memory, to re-read James Joyce’s The Dead today. It includes this description which,as well as being beautifully put, fits with some of our musings :

Like the tender fire of stars, moments of their life together, that no-one knew of or would ever know of, broke upon and illumined his memory

With Gabriel Conroy thus fired up in his adoration of his wife, the end of the story then turns on a powerful memory from her youth being summoned to mind by a song The Lass of Aughrim.

[…] that have emerged from my Café Shorts musing and which I began to lay out in considering Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall a few weeks ago. And, although I’m dealing with a short story in this post, Hermetic Spaces […]

[…] for their short story collections – Hassan Blasim and Zoe Lambert‘s variations on war; Anthony Doerr‘s employment of memory as a framing device – but this thematic approach, while it […]

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