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Speak, Memory

MAN WALKS INTO A ROOM, A Novel, By Nicole Krauss, Nan A. Talese / Doubleday: 256 pp., $23.95

June 02, 2002|JEFF TURRENTINE | Jeff Turrentine is a senior editor with Hemispheres magazine and has written for the New York Times Magazine and Slate.com.

In the short story, "Funes, His Memory," Jorge Luis Borges creates a character, Funes, who has somehow managed to inoculate himself against the ravages of forgetfulness. Thrown from a horse, Funes is knocked unconscious, and--in a sly inversion of the classic amnesia story--awakens to discover not that he's suddenly "missing" weeks or months or years of his life but that he has been granted total recall. Whatever Funes perceives, he retains: from entire Latin texts to the patterns of spray formed by an oar being lifted from the water. What's more, he's able to swim confidently in the flood of associations these memories inevitably release: Everything reminds him of something else, which in turn reminds him of something else. His body crippled from the fall, he is transformed into a being of pure, perfect mind.

Borges, the librarian-fabulist, was fascinated with our private modes of cataloging information and the role memory plays in our construction of reality. In Funes' story, we sense a sad acknowledgment of memory's limitations, of its susceptibility to decay. At the same time, Borges suggests that forgetfulness--which Funes is doomed never to know--is also a supreme blessing: our only means of calibrating the onslaught of our experience and managing its terrible weight. His ultimate moral: We are all amnesiacs, and we should all be grateful for it.

High-diving gamely into the pool of amnesia literature is Nicole Krauss, whose debut novel, "Man Walks Into a Room," is a startling tale of a man so desperate for memories that he is willing to borrow someone else's.

The amnesiac owes his unique place in our fictions to our curiosity about memory's relationship to identity and to tantalizing questions about existential culpability: Are we anything more than walking, talking accretions of empirical data? Are we morally responsible for acts we don't remember committing? Playing around with the tropes of amnesia allows a writer to remove a character's overstuffed personal filing cabinet and see if there's anything like an actual soul hiding behind it. It's a device that must tempt every novelist, though the rules of verisimilitude (the condition is actually extremely rare) have frightened many of them off and effectively pushed these stories to the fringes of genre fiction. Krauss, however, isn't intimidated, and her novel is as clever and poignant as it is fearless.

"Man Walks Into a Room" begins as noir, detours into an Updike-like study of a doomed marriage, then veers off toward paranoid sci-fi before entering the home stretch as a mournful kaddish. Samson Greene, a professor of English at Columbia University, is found wandering the deserts outside of Las Vegas, unkempt, dehydrated and unable to explain who he is or how he got there. When his wife, Anna, is summoned from New York to retrieve him, she's greeted with the news that a cherry-sized tumor has impinged on Samson's temporal lobe and resulted in an unusually severe case of amnesia. An emergency operation to remove the tumor is a qualified success: The patient's life is saved, but his memory from the age of 12 to the time of the operation isn't. Suddenly the 36-year-old Samson is missing 24 years. He knows the names and faces of his grade-school playmates, takes comfort in memories of his childhood dog and his beloved mother, but he doesn't recognize his wife.

Upon returning to New York, Samson begins to fall apart despite Anna's loving ministrations. His apartment and the surrounding city are completely unfamiliar to him. He has no friends. He can't teach anymore. He can't remember the thousands of books he has read, the classes he has led, or--most disturbing--the life he has built over a decade with Anna. As the gulf between them widens, Samson finds himself drifting toward a former student, a young woman whose humor and vitality make him feel temporarily normal but whose coyness about their history together makes him wonder whether they were more than just teacher and pupil.

Shortly after he and Anna separate, Samson receives a call from a neurologist conducting mnemonic research in Nevada who's understandably fascinated by this most unusual case. Unsettled and unmoored, Samson is vulnerable to an offer by the neurologist to go to the desert, where he would have another person's single digitized memory implanted into the tabula rasa of his consciousness. Feeling that he has nothing to lose and eager for the paycheck and the opportunity to participate in envelope-pushing science, Samson agrees to take part in the experiment and makes the journey out West.

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