(One month ago today, Like Fire reported that “The Story Prize has announced its finalists for 2010, and as usual it’s a diverse trio …”)
The epigraph of this Story Prize finalist is drawn from the beginning of My Last Sigh, the conversational “semiautobiography” of acclaimed Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel:
You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all, just as an intelligence without the possibility of expression is not really an intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.
Going forward, Anthony Doerr, author of Memory Wall: Stories, suggests strongly that memory, that most ephemeral wisp of humanity, is nonetheless constitutive of our individual and social selves — head, heart, and hand all together.
In the six stories here (two of them several dozen pages in length), Doerr grapples with very big and intractable problems that relate, in various ways, to this notion of memory as utterly vulnerable yet absolutely indispensable. He knows his way around the fragile parts of human living, whether a married couple trying unsuccessfully to conceive or elderly women struggling to hold onto their histories.
Doerr writes in overflowing particulars, loving lists and details in great measure. I wondered, at times, if these stylistic points were merely an irritating distraction (for me) or, somehow, a counterweight for the profound sorrows also expressed throughout all the stories. He struggles (not always successfully, I think) to achieve a balance between many details and a singular, flowing awareness:
Sometimes a place can be so real, so brimming-over with color and noise and detail, that trying to figure out which details to select for a piece of fiction can be overwhelming. Ultimately I’m trying to write stories inside which a reader is transported; I want readers to have an experience that allows them to enter the time and place and life of someone else. And I want that experience of empathy to be continuous; I don’t want the dream of the fiction to be broken by any carelessness on my part. (Amazon.com Q&A)
It’s not at all surprising to realize how often grief (at death, at any number of other losses) is inextricably linked with memory – a dizzying twinned spiral of absence and presence. The title story, first (and longest) in the book, is a masterful recounting of how we may contend with Alzheimer’s disease in a future world of harvested memories, a place where elders will be even more vulnerable than they are now. The science-fiction aspect is soundly placed and does not intrude into a complex narrative where many ache for fulfillment.
In a more familiar setting, Allison, a fifteen-year-old girl, in “The River Nemunas”, is living with her grandfather after the deaths of her parents. She struggles with the progression of time:
You want to know? What it’s like? To prop up the dam? To keep your fingers plugged in its cracks? To feel like every single breath that passes is another betrayal, another step farther away from what you were and where you were and who you were, another step deeper into the darkness?
It’s a challenging task to read stories where even routine daily living is held up as betrayal of history, of self; loss teems and is always evocative, calling each to its own, summoning forth each reader’s personal collection of sorrow. So, then, this is not a breezy beach read — few depicted in it can imagine “happily ever after” because they struggle mightily to make it through the past into today. The future is only vaguely in focus.
I had the greatest respect for the final story in the book, “Afterworld”, because an elderly woman who has suffered acutely all her life is determined to find her way, with help and with dignity, to her earthly end:
Why, Esther wonders, do any of us believe our lives lead outward through time? How do we know we aren’t continually traveling inward, toward our centers? Because this is how it feels to Esther when she sits on her deck in Geneva, Ohio, in the last spring of her life; it feels as if she is being drawn down some path that leads deeper inside, toward a miniature, shrouded, final kingdom that has waited in her all along.
My own grandmother’s name was Esther; a few months from now, she will have been gone for thirty years. This, and more, do I remember.
Anthony Doerr, a 2010 Guggenheim Fellow, is also the author of The Shell Collector: Stories, About Grace: A Novel, and Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World. As part of his writing life, he prepares a science books column every other month for The Boston Globe.