Each Seed Its Own Shell and Coffin: Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall

August 9, 2010 | 1 book mentioned 2 4 min read

In his memoir Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov considered the quandary he’d given himself, remembering his own life and putting it to paper:

They are passing, posthaste, posthaste, the gliding years—to use a soul-rending Horatian inflection. The years are passing, my dear, and presently nobody will know what you and I know. . . . So perhaps it is time we examined ancient snapshots, cave drawings of trains and planes, strata of toys in the lumbered closet.

Nabokov understood the transience of day-to-day life; the way a cup of coffee empties itself almost immediately after its pouring, a ring of moisture its only shadow. We must give over to decay, and what we leave behind—the memories we’ve created through interactions with other people—must serve as our authentication. Accepting our impermanence is both the most terrifying and most comforting thing we may have to do, both our mortal limitation and our eternal emancipation.

coverAnthony Doerr’s newest collection of stories, Memory Wall walks this perfect line of memorial trepidation. Doerr’s voice has no limits, and each of his six stories quietly probes the grasp we keep on our memories.  He begins, rightly, with a tale of memory displaced and dispossessed. The title story allows us to observe the consequences as Alma, an elderly white South African suffering from dementia, preserves her memories on plastic cartridges, which line the walls of her Cape Town home like glittering seashells. Alma’s memories—particularly those of her late husband, whose attention to her dwindled as he became increasingly obsessed with archaeology—are like fossils partially unearthed, our portrait of her a composite at best.

As her memories are recounted (by the way of thieves digging through the cartridges, in the hopes of finding buried treasure), we come to understand exactly why each memory’s disappearance means so much to her, and why each cartridge demands such attention. “Water in a vase, chewing away at the stems of roses. Rust colonizing the tumblers in a lock. Sugar eating at the dentin of teeth, a river eroding its banks. Alma could think of a thousand metaphors, and all of them were inadequate.” This is what it is to lose the ability to recount your life; this is the loss of personal history. Doerr compounds Alma’s loss by making it unspeakable, by placing her recalling just out of reach.

Each of Doerr’s stories could be contained in one of Alma’s cartridges, each a testament to the desire to make memory into a tangible totem. “Procreate, Generate” imagines a couple’s difficulty conceiving, the trauma of having “seventy-five trillion cells in their bodies and they can’t get two of them together.” “The Demilitarized Zone” examines a man missing his soldier son during wartime, each letter received delivering a fresh blow. “Village 113” follows a woman preserving seeds even as her village prepares to be submerged to make way for China’s massive Three Gorges Dam. She sees history in every inch of the town: “Every stone, every stair, is a key to a memory. . . . Everything accumulates a terrible beauty.” The seeds she salvages become “as heavy as a child,” her cross to bear, her memories and the memories of the town made manifest.

Doerr’s voices are not all aged, or even fully matured; in “The River Nemunas”, he fully embodies a fifteen-year-old girl, flying to Lithuania after the death of her parents, and ultimately chasing down her mother’s ghost in the pursuit of a legendary sturgeon. “The urge to know scrapes against the inability to know. . . . We peer at the past through murky water; all we can see are shapes and figures. How much is real? And how much is merely threads and tombstones?” Finally, in “Afterworld”, elderly Esther suffers from epileptic fits that serve as blasts of clarity, bringing her back to her youth as an orphan in Nazi Germany, and to the fateful moment in which her life was miraculously, inexplicably, spared. The lucidity in the midst of her seizures crystallizes her understanding of the past: “Draw the darkness, Esther thinks, and it will point out the light which has been in the paper all the while.”

Doerr’s protagonists seem destined to suffer from their own memories at the same moment they create and thrive in new ones, but at least they never feel anonymous or generic. The language he employs to shape each character’s voice is so specific to that character’s circumstance, so fresh and precise, that he always keeps us engaged. Sometimes the metaphors Doerr employs are a bit trite—yes, fossils represent memories, we may have seen this coming—but each perspective is so genuinely articulated that snark doesn’t seem necessary. It is rare to find an author whose voice feels artless and sincere; even if the story might feel predictable, we have to applaud his guilelessness. Doerr’s is the voice of a natural weaver of tales, and it feels only right that his final thoughts would carry undertones of the Brothers Grimm: “Every hour, an infinite number of memories disappear, whole glowing atlases dragged into graves. But during that same hour children are moving about, surveying territory that seems to them entirely new. They push back the darkness; they scatter memories behind them like bread crumbs. The world is remade.”

In a world where so much meaning comes at the expense of innocence and wonder, the truths illustrated in the simplicity of recollection, of bringing memories hidden in murky water to the level of surface observation, prove as engaging as epic poem. Doerr’s voice, to be sure, will not be forgotten.

has written reviews and commentary for Full Stop, The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Kenyon Review, and Specter Magazine, among others. She lives in Morningside Heights.

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