Sunday, June 22, 2008

Memory yet again in Contemporary Fiction: Some Ramblings in response

I recently finished Man Walks into a Room by Nicole Krauss. It was a highly anticipated read, as not only was it very critically acclaimed, but she also wrote one of my favorite books I've ever read, The History of Love. Last year I read a lot of books about memory: The Inheritance of Loss, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, and The Memory Keeper's Daughter. This topic is one that never fails to interest me: perhaps because I fear losing the moments of my past that have shaped and influenced me, perhaps because I fear that the places which in a sense define me are slipping further away into the past tense: rather than my drives through fields and the smell of evening air in Ohio, it is becoming the energy of the city and the smell of Brooklyn sidewalks in the summer.

But last weekend I was out on Long Island, visiting the beach on an unbeachy day, and all that is in me that longs for space and tea and quiet swelled up again. So my memories of those places aren't gone, but just dormant. I think? I'm not sure I could survive in the city without remembering country roads and open skies and the hope that I will get to visit them. (Ironically, I'm not sure if I would survive in the suburbs anymore, either...rural, though, perhaps? A character in the book said that she couldn't go back to the suburbs of Cleveland anymore, not in the same way (page 55). That is how life feels...though I guess that happens with time alone, and not just space.) It's not just outdoor space, either. This has been a year of friends moving and things changing and me realizing the impact of having those people and friendships gone from my immediate life. I can deal with the loss ok (sort of!), because I can remember.

Before I turn into a ridiculously cheesy song lyric, let me explain the literary connection. Samson, the main character in Krauss' book loses all of his memory except up until the age of 12. The book examines not only this theme, but of scientific intervention with memory. But what stuck with me the most was the quote: "I know, I know. A little to the left or right and I might not have remembered how to go to the bathroom. I might have existed in some eternal moment, with no memory of the minute that just passed. I might have lost my ability to feel. I'm lucky, sure. What I lost is, in the grand scope of things, almost...negligible ." (page 44)

I'm just not sure that his loss is negligible. His organs and senses are intact, but his entire framework for seeing and dealing with the world is gone. Interestingly enough, he has his memories from childhood--but they end at age 12--about the age of my students. And though they have had life experience, they don't necessarily process through it meaningfully until much later, through the lens of even more life experience. The scientist who works with Samson brings up the idea that memories are a burden to keep (page 89). This is partially true: I am haunted quite often by memories and they can affect an afternoon or more of my life...but they are also a grounding, I think.

There is so much more thinking that needs to be done about this book, but the simplified bottom line is that this book made me very sad. Near the end, Samson describes his state: "He'd surrendered his past for a plot of emptiness." (page 213)

Maybe my reaction is part of the reason why I am such an incessant reflector in life; I just really believe that there is meaning to be made.


Steph said...

I had a similar reaction to this book and "Gilead". Like you mentioned, they both made me think about the importance of memories and made me question which ones I've left behind and which ones I cling to.

Steph said...

oh yeah, they both also made me sad :(