Posts Tagged ‘Memory Wall’

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.

Gorgonops longifrons

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. (more…)

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