A bountiful realm of our own making. (Renee Nault / For The Times,…)
Scribner: 246 pp., $24
Anthony Doerr opens "Memory Wall," his second volume of short stories, with an epigraph from Surrealist director Luis Buñuel. "You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces," Buñuel declares, "to realize that memory is what makes our lives." For Doerr — author of three previous books and one of 21 writers selected by Granta in 2007 as "Best Young American Novelists" — the idea of memory as the filament from which we weave identity is not a new one; it infuses his 2004 novel, "About Grace," in which the present becomes, for a time, an escape from both past and future, and their furious sense of consequence.
Doerr's new book, however, is less concerned with the importance of memory in bestowing meaning than in the impermanence of the meaning it bestows. For Doerr's characters, reality is ultimately little more than a projection, or a collection of projections, out of which they create the illusory textures of their lives.
In that sense, "Memory Wall" is less a loose collection than a suite of six related stories, connected not by character but by theme. Memory — whether cultural or biological or personal — is a driving force throughout the book. In "Village 113," a Chinese woman, keeper of the seeds for her river village, faces a future in which everything she has ever known, her own history as well as that passed down over the generations, will be obliterated when a new dam is built and the waters rise to drown her home. For half a millennium, memory has been as constant as the two stone lions in the Park of Heroes, "their backs polished from five centuries of child-riders," but beneath the water, this history will disappear as if it had never been there. "Procreate, Generate" addresses the generational question through a different filter, tracing a Wyoming couple's increasingly desperate efforts to have a child.
The characters here are so different that they appear to occupy distinct universes, the former bound by centuries of tradition and the latter unmoored even from the limits of the body itself. And yet, they echo each other in the most nuanced of ways. "Embryo, seed coat, endosperm: what is a seed if not the purest kind of memory, a link to every generation that has gone before it?" thinks the seed keeper, pondering her place in the universe, which has been rendered obsolete in an instant, the instant in which the water began to flow. Reading that, it's impossible not to think of the woman from Wyoming, who puts her hope in embryonic implantation, itself a kind of seeding, even as she tells herself, "Nothingness is the permanent thing. Nothingness is the rule. Life is the exception."
This notion of nothingness as a fundamental condition creates a vivid tension in the book, where entropy and forgetfulness are always lapping at the edges of the stories. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the title piece, at 85 pages more novella than short story, which revolves around Alma, an older woman in the middle stages of dementia who is an outpatient in an experimental memory clinic in Cape Town, South Africa. Set slightly in the future, in a time when memories can be recorded on small digital cartridges and played back in all their sensory lushness, the story addresses both individual and collective history, since Alma's late husband, Harold, was an amateur paleontologist. Her recollection of him "reclaiming something vital, … grappling with his own infinitesimal place in time," pushes against both her own gradual disintegration and the hard, sharp fact of Harold's death to remind us how ephemeral our grip on identity really is. "Dr. Amnesty's cartridges," Doerr writes, "the South African Museum, Harold's fossils, Chefe Carpenter's collection, Alma's memory wall — weren't they all ways of trying to defy erasure? What is memory anyway? How can it be such a frail, perishable thing?" The point is that, whether on the grand scale or the personal, it is not enough to build a firewall against the void.
The same, of course, could be said of narrative, which is, at the most basic level, an attempt to impose order on the chaos of experience. That adds another layer of tension to the collection, since stories need some kind of resolution even when what they record is unresolved. For the most part, Doerr does an excellent job of balancing these intentions, creating work that is open-ended yet nuanced, avoiding false connections or epiphanies. The narrator of "The River Nemunas," a teenage girl who moves from Kansas to Lithuania to live with her grandfather after her parents die of cancer, learns that it never gets easier, that the pain of absence is perhaps the only thing that doesn't dissipate. "Lots of things fade away," she thinks, "but ghosts like these don't, heartbreak like this doesn't."
Occasionally, Doerr falters; in the title story, he ties up too many loose ends. The only significant failing, however, comes in the final effort, "Afterworld," which posits a vision of the afterlife as "another world, folded inside the living world," where the dead "wait until everyone who knew us when we were children has died. And when the last one of them dies, we finally die."
The problem with such a conceit isn't that the story reads like a fairy tale (although it does) but that it's antithetical to the rest of the book.
More apropos is this fantasy from the narrator of "The River Nemunas": "I think when I die I'd like to be tied to ten thousand balloons, so I could go floating into the clouds, and get blown off somewhere above the cities, and then the mountains, and then the ocean, just miles and miles of blue ocean, my corpse sailing above it all." That may not be much to hope for, but, if Doerr is right, it's the only thing we've got.