I’ve just finished Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall, now out in paper. With only six stories, it seems like a slender collection, but the title story is nearly 80 pages long, and the last, “Afterworld,” runs to 55 pages. Although they’re clearly the two powerhouses of this collection, what I came away liking best were two others: “Village 113” and “The River Nemunas.”
Doerr seems uniquely qualified to write about memory. He was a history major who writes a column on science books for the Boston Globe. His novel, About Grace (2004) was a meditation on loss, memory, precognition and water; in it, a hydrologist who occasionally dreams events that later come true runs away from one of them, leaving behind his wife and infant daughter. It’s a wonderful book to get lost in, filled with dreams and snow, one of those novels I recommend to people I know will overlook the improbable plot.
The title story in Memory Wall is about an elderly South African woman suffering from dementia in a futuristic society where technology enables her to access her memories through a science-fictionlike device that “reads” memory tracings pulled from the brain and recorded onto cartridges. While the elderly play back their entire lives, one tape at a time, a kind of piracy has grown up around the tapes, which are traded on the street. There are also “memory tappers,” people whose heads are implanted with ports that allow them to read the cartridges.
It’s all a bit spooky and creepy, reminiscent of Vonnegut without the humor.
Doerr complicates things further by giving the old woman, Alma, a dead husband who was on the brink of a fantastic and wildly profitable discovery—he had found “a rare Permian fossil” called Gorgonops longifrons, a complete skeleton of which would be worth millions—when he had a fatal heart attack. Alma was with him that day but has never been able to remember exactly where they were.
A cutthroat fellow fossil hunter thinks the spot is still lodged somewhere in her head, and he’s using a memory tapper, a 15-year-old boy named Luvo, to exhaustively scan each of Alma’s hundreds of memory tapes in hopes of recovering the exact location. How this eventually happens and what becomes of everyone involved is less important than what Luvo eventually understands: “It’s the rarest thing … that gets preserved, that does not get erased, broken down, transformed.”
This is the heart of every story in Memory Wall, where characters from all corners of the world—Cape Town, Minnesota, Korea, Idaho, a Chinese village named 113, Lithuania, Hamburg—try to restore or sustain that elusive memory. The language Doerr fits to this search is like the vocabulary of memory: sometimes elegiac and lush, sometimes sharper and exact, a strange blend of science and poetry.
In “Village 113,” another elderly woman and her son, a government official, weather the impending submergence of her village in China when a new dam is built. Unless they take a buyout and relocate, the elderly villagers are en route to extinction like the dinosaur fossils in the first story: One of them, Teacher Ke, “has been in the gorges, they say, longer than the rocks.”
As the village seed saver, the woman has sustained several types of memory—cellular, reproductive, collective. As she observes her son, now responsible for enforcing (some say brutally, though she never sees any proof) the removal of villagers, she remembers when he was a boy, when “he would fall asleep with a math book beneath his cheek,” when “his hair was the color of shadows and his pencils were cratered with teethmarks.” She’s not sure who or what he’s turned into.
The options he offers her—to relocate near him, to settle for cash, to have heat and a telephone—seem Faustian, and his mother begins to suspect the villagers are right: If you don’t agree to her son’s offers, you disappear. Of course, this is essentially true. Before the town is even flooded, it’s stripped of its identity: bamboo groves disappear, magnolia trees are dug up, “hinges and knobs and nuts evaporate,” and “every ounce of teak in every house is dismantled” and removed.
What’s left is the bounty of her seeds and the “terrible beauty” of silence: “Just the sky and light falling down between the shells of buildings, like a fine rain, and her footfalls echoing through the alleys.”
Doerr can be repetitive and unsubtle about making his points, and is quite a list-maker. But when it works, the prose really sings. In “The River Nemunas,” a teenager loses both her parents in a car accident and is sent back to their homeland, Lithuania, to live with her grandfather. Though fighting to keep in check a strangling grief, she is young and curious enough to explore her new surroundings:
In the shed I find two fishing rods and an old aluminum boat under a tarp and eight jars of Lithuanian pennies and thousands of mouse-chewed British magazines: Popular Science and British Association for the Advancement of Physics. There are magazines on polar bears and Mayan calendars and cell biology and lots of things I don’t understand. Inside are faded cosmonauts and gorillas hooked up to machines and cartoon cars driving around Mars.
After she plows through all the above miscellanea, the next-door neighbor, a Mrs. Sabo, appears and leads her to a box of childhood photos of another unknown: the girl’s mother.
The girl would like an explanation for some of the pictures—in one, her mother is dressed as a polar bear—but Mrs. Sabo speaks no English. The girl turns to Grandpa Z., as she calls him, who explains that when her mother was a little girl, she loved to fish.
He says his dad used to take Mom sturgeon fishing every Sunday for years and Mrs. Sabo probably caught a few in the old days but then there was overfishing and pesticides and the Kaunas dam and black-market caviar and his dad died and the last sturgeon died and the Soviet Union broke up and Mom grew up and went to university in the United States and married a creationist and no one has caught a sturgeon in the River Nemunas in twenty-five years.
Details that blend past and present crop up like the curious farrago in the shed: Grandpa Z. is a gravestone etcher who engraves portraits on tombstones, sometimes full-length portraits of the deceased. The girl is reading a biography of Emily Dickinson, who says: “To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.”
There is a trip to the KGB museum in Vilnius, with its horrific interrogation rooms; a TV program that shows a village in South America where a tribe is fast disappearing along with its language, containing words they had that no one, soon, will ever speak again. And then, to top this off, Mrs. Sabo pours some beer into her cupped palm and holds it out into the mist of the back yard, and a white horse comes up and sips it.
Double yeeow! This is what I mean about science and poetry.
There’s more than a little of the fairy tale in these stories. “Afterworld” begins, “In a tall house in a yard of thistles eleven girls wake on the floor of eleven bedrooms. It may be the Vilnius ghetto—“roofs have collapsed” and “facades have crumbled away.” Are they dead, as one of the girls thinks, or have they survived a pogrom because of some oversight? No one else is alive and they seem to have been residents of an orphanage.
We don’t learn as much about the girls and where they’ve been as we do about the life they have in the memory of the only survivor of their deportation to the Warsaw Ghetto: Esther, who now lives in Cleveland, has been hospitalized for seizures that are also her pathway to hallucinatory memories of these children she once knew. The doctors want to keep her medicated, but Esther begs her grandson to take her home, where she can stop the anticonvulsant drugs and travel into her past, where the girls have something to tell her. He reminds her that the doctor says without the medications she could die.
“The doctor says what you see is only real in your head.”
“Real in my head?” whispers Esther. “Isn’t everything that’s real only real in our heads?”
Doerr’s first short-story collection, The Shell Collector, came out in 2002. Most of the stories in it take place in Africa and New Zealand, where Doerr lived and worked. He now lives in Boise, Idaho.
Read an excerpt from About Grace.
Do you cherish a copy of a book because just holding it can trigger memories—of the day you bought it, a period of your life that comes back to life as soon as you pick it up?
In an essay about how we read books, Doerr wrote that our “copy” is not just any copy; it’s a contemplation of “the intense, complicated latticework of memory and experience summoned by a single book.”
It’s the weather in which one reads a book that interpenetrates the paper … the quality of the sunlight falling across the page. It is the little coffee stain on page 29, the twelve bright stars scratched ecstatically across page 302.
My “copy” of Memory Wall is a library book, due back tomorrow, so I didn’t write in it or spill anything inside. But maybe I will leave something tucked in its pages for the next person.