Anthony Doerr – Memory Wall: Six Stories

I decided to read this book because one of the bloggers I follow* decided to read it this month. Six stories, most fairly long. I’ll confess, one, “Procreate, Generate” did not interest me in the slightest, though I read it through, hoping it would be an infertility story worth reading. Forgive me if I sound heartless. I’ve read many, many stories, true and fictional, about infertile couples doing dramatic things to have babies, and I have some thought on the matter, and I’m just not interested in reading another account unless it’s handled differently or brings something new to the table. This one didn’t, at least not to me. YMMV. I also pretty much ran through “The Demilitarized Zone” without really registering what was happening. I’m not sure if that was because I was distracted or if some sentence put me off or if it just didn’t interest me.

The other stories more than make up for these two disappointments, however. A lot is made of the common link of memory in all the stories. The title story, “Memory Wall,” includes a science-fiction element which I find interesting and positive; it’s always nice to see someone include a little SF in literary fiction. I’ve tried to imagine the story without the memory machine and the cartridges; it would be very different, because the subculture of “memory tappers” would not be included, and this is a key idea of the story: what would happen if this machine existed, how would it be exploited? Everything that has value has the potential for thievery and exploitation, and this machine is no different. It was a lovely story, with many relationships that were complicated and sometimes a little obscure. I wonder what memories I would like to relive, which one I would tuck away as special, which ones I would want to lock up and never see again. There is an up side to dementia, after all. I just heard this on Jeopardy the other day, it never occurred to me before, though of course, it makes perfect sense – “amnesty” is from the same Latin root as “amnesia”. Amnesty is a forgiveness so deep, it is forgetting of the wrong. The nature of amnesty, of forgiveness, the link to forgetting – it’s not possible to voluntarily forget – interests me and some day I want to explore this. The concept of forgiveness is not explored as much as memory in this story, and I wish it were, since Alma, the woman at the core, could stand to be forgiven of some things, as could we all. Is forgiveness possible if one forgets? Forgiveness is a process that is ongoing, eternal, unlike forgetting. Ah, but I keep getting away from the story, but not really. Doerr’s shtick, if you will, is the world stage, the variety of locations he uses for settings, and he’s placed this in South Africa: does this perhaps have anything to do with memory, amnesty, forgiveness? Could it be set in the US? Of course, but would it lose some of the power? I’m not so sure, I think there’s plenty to forgive here as well. It’s beautiful, it’s a little strange, it’s lush, it’s sad. It’s a little heavy on the symbolism. The last sentence, for example. But very, very enjoyable, full of people who want something and go after it full throttle.

“Village 113” is another beautiful story. I’m a bit of a sucker for stories about Asian folklore, and the seed keeper of this story, with her engineer son and the schoolteacher, does not disappoint. It’s a little heavy-handed on the memory theme, but still beautiful. This story won the 2008 O Henry prize, so of course it’s wonderful, and that’s another series I need to start reading more regularly (I have 3 of the past 10 years). In an interview Anthony Doerr explains it was inspired by the building of the Three Mile Dam, and though he never went to any small villages, he spent some time in Hong Kong doing research. I have no idea what a small village in China is like, or what happens when a dam is built (or, for that matter, why a dam is so important) but it reads as absolute authenticity to me. I’d like to know what someone who has more actual knowledge than I thinks.

“The River Nemunas” turned out to be the big surprise. A 15-year-old girl from Kansas is sent to her grandfather’s in Lithuania after her parents die. Forgive me if I slip into teenage snidery: oh, really? And what Child Services worker ok’d that one? What, the only place worse than Kansas is Lithuania? Ok, snap out of it! Because, in spite of several leaps of logic, it turned into a really beautiful story that had me in tears over… a sturgeon. Yep, the fish. No one eats sturgeon any more, they’re endangered, I don’t even know if they’re available. I remember reading FDR was fond of sturgeon and eggs for breakfast, and I always wanted to try it but I’ve never encountered it on a menu or in the supermarket (or on Top Chef, Iron Chef, Chopped, Julia Child, or any other cooking show where I’ve encountered things I never knew existed). Now I’ve encountered one, albeit a fictional one. The story goes for memory, of course, in the tours of now-abandoned Soviet missile sites and a dead river that isn’t quite dead yet, in a child’s sorrow that surfaces in strange ways, in an old woman who has lost most of her memory, in a Grandfather who becomes a believer. It’s a wonderful story.

I was looking forward to “Afterworld” perhaps the most: the blurb described it as “a woman has seizures that return her to her childhood in Nazi Germany and her escape.” But I found it too jumbled to be enjoyable, more of an academic “hey, what if we do it this way” than a story I could lose myself in, so it was disappointing. The time shifts – epileptic seizures in two time periods – were just too difficult for me to follow, and it became a struggle rather than a pleasure to read. I would like to try this one again later, see if I find the experience better.

All in all, not bad: about a 50-50 ratio, and the hits were hits out of the park.

* I don’t remember which blogger. I follow over 20 blogs. People who don’t understand blogs, or who follow “pop culture” blogs or personal blogs, think that’s impossible. I suppose it would be if every blogger I follow blogged every day, but of course they don’t. I follow one blog that hasn’t been updated in almost two years (I keep hoping…. Binny, will you ever start blogging The West Wing again?) and several that haven’t been updated since October of last year. Most post one or two entries a week. Most of the entries are short. Some of the entries are not of particular interest so I just skim the entries when they appear on my Dashboard or in my mailbox. But then, someone says, “I think I’ll read Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall” and I type out a library request which comes in at an unpredictable time, so I have three weeks to finish it and I’d better get cracking, because another library book came in at the same time and I have three weeks to finish that one, too, and decide if I want to buy either of them, though I think I’ve already decided Memory Wall is a keeper… and in the meantime I really want to continue with Ha Jin and the Madras Press series 2 and the Ken Kalfus novel I just bought on the strength of the stories I just read… excuse me, I have to go read. I suppose at some point the blogger who started me on this journey will post an entry about Memory Wall. If not, I’m glad I read it, anyway.

3 responses to “Anthony Doerr – Memory Wall: Six Stories

  1. Pingback: Hisham Matar: “Naima” from The New Yorker, 1/24/11 « A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: PEN/O.Henry 2011: “The Black Square” by Chris Adrian, originally published in McSweeney’s « A Just Recompense

  3. Pingback: Pushcart 2011: Valerie Vogrin, “Things We’ll Need For The Coming Difficulties” from Agni Spring 2009 « A Just Recompense

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