Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr
Doerr is the author of three previous books: one of my favorite novels, About Grace, a memoir of his time spent in Rome, and an earlier collection of short stories called The Shell Collector. Memory Wall is a volume of two novellas and four shorter pieces, all revolving around the central theme of memory.
One night in November, at three in the morning, Alma wakes to hear the rape gate across her front door rattle open and someone enter her house. Her arms jerk; she spills a glass of water across the nightstand. A floorboard in the living room shrieks. She hears what might be breathing. Water drips onto the floor.
Alma manages a whisper. “Hello?”
A shadow flows across the hall. She hears the scrape of a shoe on the staircase, then nothing. Night air blows into the room – it smells of frangipani and charcoal. Alma presses a fist over her heart.
Beyond the balcony windows, moonlit pieces of clouds drift over the city. Spilled water creeps toward her bedroom door.
Thus opens the title story of Memory Wall – with apologies for swiping such a large chunk of the story there. Even in a piece such as this – set in a future Cape Town, South Africa where we have the ability to digitally preserve memories for revisiting once the originals are gone or corrupted – Doerr opens a window and allows at least the reminder of the beauty of the natural world to flow in. I love the smells on the night air and the subtle drip of the water from the spilled glass. Water is certainly a recurring theme – not just in these six stories, but in all of Doerr’s work – one of submergence, of washing clean, of the fleeting flow of memories.
Memory is such a tenuous, fragile, human phenomenon whose presence we usually take for granted – this ignorance is essentially the underlying theme in all of these stories. Even in the dystopia of the title story it is proven that you cannot hang onto memories after their time is up, while in Afterworld, for some there is a diaphanous, porous barrier between our waking world & an afterlife subsisting on memories. (This one reminded me of Kevin Brockmeier’s fantastic novel, The Brief History of the Dead.) Rivers and lakes, giant fish and dinosaur bones, collected seeds and wounded cranes – all mix and blend with tales of husbands and wives, fathers and sons, grandfathers and granddaughters, friends lost, abandoned towns, and the memory of all things.
I know that I harp on this subject quite a bit – both on this site and in real life – but I really wish more people would read short stories. Some of the finest fiction I have ever read has been from short form pieces – many of which have been written by Anthony Doerr. Alma Konachek (from “Memory Wall”), the hunter in “The Hunter’s Wife,” and “The Shell Collector” are all characters that have stuck with me long after I first read their tales. A story doesn’t have to be 300 pages in order for you to connect with a character or become emotionally involved. Hell, look at Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom – over 500 pages of blathering about people I could never empathize with or care about in the slightest.
The title story in Doerr’s book was originally commissioned by McSweeney’s and their editor & founder, Dave Eggers wrote that the piece Doerr turned in has “the nuance and depth and complexity of a novel five times as long.” So you see, I’m not alone! MW was also a NYT Notable Book, an Amazon Top Ten Literature & Fiction title for 2010, and a Boston Globe Top 12, just in case being #5 on the Catapult doesn’t do it for you.