Memory Wall: Stories
by Anthony Doerr
Reviewed by Kassten Alonso
Most writers should want to be Anthony Doerr when they grow up -- short story alchemist, novelist, travelogueur; anthologized, lionized, winner of literary awards, despite which his writing really is crazy good. Memory Wall is Doerr's latest collection of stories, including "Village 113," which earned his third O. Henry prize.
While Doerr's novel About Grace explored humanity's impotence against fate, Memory Wall investigates, through characters plagued by conflicting emotions, humanity's impermanence -- be it our bodies, minds, relationships, hopes, our memories.
Unwilling to evacuate her doomed and deserted village, labeled "113" by dam project engineers, the seed keeper muses: "Every memory everyone has ever had will eventually be underwater."
Doerr's characters are fond of pronouncements, particularly regarding the question, "What's the one permanent thing in the world?" "Nothingness is the permanent thing." "Darkness ... is the permanent thing. And silence." Even: "a river never stops."
These dictums aren't original or insightful, which is to say, there's no serviceable answer, which is to say, is there nothing we can hold on to, though we're destined to lose everything?
The eponymous opening tale argues yes, there's nothing, our memories don't even belong to us; see how "An old woman's life becomes a young man's." Two thieves stage nightly break-ins at the home of Alma Konachek, a 71-year-old "white-skinned, well-fed" South African widow. Struggling to stave off Alzheimer's, Alma underwent a cranial operation allowing her to plug 'n' play her life's remembrances. The thieves, one of whom, Luvo, endured the same operation, aren't after Alma's jewels, then, but one jackpot of a memory.
Our frailties are rarely more glaring than in our attempts to beat back the Nothingness, the Darkness. In "Procreate, Generate," Herb and Imogene Ross rack up debt trying to get pregnant. As failure becomes undeniable, "Their inadequacies, their timidities," particularly Herb's bald-faced pleas for Imogene's affection and flirtations with his student, cause the reader to cringe.
Unlike the other stories, "The River Nemunas" eschews quotation marks, perhaps to mute 15-year-old Allison's grief over losing her parents, perhaps to give the illusion Allison speaks directly to the reader as to her Lithuanian grandpapa, Z. While reprising a popular motif for Doerr -- fishing -- "Nemunas" is, however, the one perturbation in this impressive collection. Allison tells us she's just trying to keep it together, but would a suddenly orphaned American teen peaceably immigrate to an "emerging economy" to live with a grandfather she hardly knows? Beyond a fainting spell and tense yet tidy asides to the reader ("Don't tell me how to grieve"), there are no rants, no tears, nothing hasty or rash. Allison, be a good girl, move to Lithuania and catch a big fish. 'Kay.
More perturbing than puppetry is the sense Doerr may have thrown his best stuff in the first story; any such anxiety is, of course, misguided. While "Memory Wall" tattoos the mind, "Afterworld" cuts out the heart, string by string. Esther Gramm, an epileptic prone to visionary seizures, was one of a dozen girls living in a Jewish orphanage at the onset of Hitler's Germany. After seven years enduring anti-Semitic indignities, Esther just manages to evade deportation to the death camps. Orphaned again, her guilt as sole survivor overwhelms any sense of good fortune: "Why Esther and not Miriam? Why not any of the others?"
Tormented throughout her life by this guilt, 81-year-old Esther finds peace in an unlikely source. And we find, not a cure, but perhaps a palliative to our impermanence: "Within the wet enclosure of a single mind a person can fly from one decade to the next, one country to another, past to present, memory to imagination."