by Rachel Luban
The first and title story in Anthony Doerr’s new collection Memory Wall asks, “What is memory anyway? How can it be such a frail, perishable thing?” This question drives the book, which spans four continents, perhaps a century, and subjects from the minutely personal (a couple trying to get pregnant) to the globally expansive (various wars and their consequences). Its range seems calculated to highlight the universal qualities of memory–primarily, as the question suggests, that it disappears. This first story takes place in an unspecified future in which vanishing memories can be recorded on cartridges and played back to stimulate deteriorating brains. The treatment fails, at least for the elderly woman at the nexus of “Memory Wall”; the literal preservation of memories, Doerr implies, cannot defeat the black hole of forgotten time that preoccupies the book. Nevertheless, in this world recollection is stable enough to be recorded and mined for information. The most interesting aspects of memory–its unreliability, its subjectivity, its perpetual transformation–remain absent from his exploration.
Doerr’s stories play out a tripartite pattern (the cynical might call it a formula): it begins with apparent doom (someone has Alzheimer’s, someone is dying); we realize doom is everyone’s destiny; the protagonist lights a match against the abyss anyway, knowing it won’t save anyone from anything. The doom in “The River Nemunas,” for example, is the death of the fifteen-year-old narrator’s parents, too-neatly paralleled by the death of the eponymous river from overfishing, pollution, and dams. Everyone is doomed: the old lady the narrator befriends also dies. A light against the darkness: the girl catches a sturgeon in the supposedly lifeless river. Doerr places much on these little symbols of defiance–since actually preserving memories proves pointless and Sisyphean, catching a fish will have to do. But often, as here, the symbols feel too contrived to support the meaning Doerr invests in them.
The real pleasures of the book come not from its insights into Memory and Time, but from that simplest narrative virtue of good storytelling. Doerr has a knack for portraying his characters with startling frankness; his detached tone makes their occasional ugliness feel all the more brutal. At its best, Memory Wall inspires the childlike feeling of breathlessly wondering what happens next. Imagination illuminates the most engaging stories; those concerned with the everyday, on the other hand–even the extraordinary everyday, like getting pregnant and sending boys to war–struggle to maintain momentum. It’s this imaginative quality that makes the luminous final story,“Afterworld,” the collection’s best.
“Afterworld” traces the life of a Holocaust refugee whose epilepsy gives her glimpses of the afterlife, where her girlhood companions, not so fortunate in escaping the gas chambers, await her. If anything, its observations about the simultaneity of time, which add little to those of the Modernists, mar the storytelling. Doerr is interested in how each moment contains the past and the future; all the stories are written in the present tense. I could wish for fewer of these facile revelations–like the one on the last page, that at every moment untold memories disappear forever, yet new ones are being formed, and so “the world is remade.” Read Memory Wall instead for the worlds Doerr makes.