In a new collection, Anthony Doerr lovingly explores the topography of the natural world and the shifting interior landscapes of memory.
If I had to pick one adjective to get at what makes Anthony Doerr so unique among contemporary fiction writers, as evidenced by his remarkable new collection, Memory Wall, it’s respectful. Doerr is daring, yes, and compassionate, but more than anything, the four stories and two novellas in this collection are imbued with, and fueled by, a deep, almost anachronistic-seeming respect for his twin muses: memory and the natural world. As a result, you finish reading this book with a richly enlivened sense of both as they relate to your own life.
Understandably, Doerr sees great tragedy in the demise of memory. We age. Our capacity to remember fades and then blinks out, taking with it a universe of experience. In the opening pages of the title novella we’re introduced to Alma Konachek of Cape Town, South Africa, seventy-four years old and widowed, sitting up in bed, her mind lost to Alzheimer’s. In a flashback we see her contemplating the onset of her dementia:
Seven decades of stories, five decades of marriage, four decades of working for Porter Properties, too many houses and buyers and sellers to count—spatulas and salad forks, novels and recipes, nightmares and daydreams, hellos and goodbyes. Could it all really be wiped away?”
Believe it or not, Doerr is setting up an action story. In his near-future setting, doctors have figured out a way to “reclaim” memories before they’re gone by imprinting them onto disks, thereafter accessible only by those who’ve had high-tech ports inserted into their skulls. Alma’s memories—particularly one involving the discovery of a valuable fossil—attract the interest of some baddies. The novella’s pacing and the thrust of its plot owe much to Hollywood, a fact that lends it a vaguely derivative feel, but Doerr never fails to keep his themes and his characters front and center. It’s fitting that a major plot twist occurs when Alma’s power of recall—a train that has very much left the station, we assume—inexplicably returns in one crucial moment.
Memory operates by its own rules, Doerr knows. We are all regularly visited by incongruous images and associations from our past, and though we sometimes know what to make of them—or even what to do with them—we often don’t, and they end up part of the ever-morphing tumble of memory, fantasy and self-delusion that comprise our personalities. In “Procreate, Generate,” a Wyoming couple gleefully embarking on a journey to get pregnant find their progress thwarted by cold, hard science (rendered with reverent exactitude by Doerr). They suffer individually, beset by vivid images of themselves as parents—Imogene cooking Tunisian food with an infant strapped to her chest, Herb waiting beneath an umbrella for his children to come out of the rain—and by fragmented memories: Imogene’s father on his knees, searching the hall rug for pieces of her broken teeth. Here and elsewhere in the collection, Doerr particularizes his characters’ isolation in a way that—as the best writing always does—makes us feel less alone.
Those characters include a “seed keeper” living in a rural Chinese village targeted for flooding by the government, under the supervision of her own relocated son, and a sixteen-year-old Kansas girl negotiating her new life as an orphan in Lithuania, where she watches Boy Meets Grill on satellite television and finally takes to hunting an elusive, possibly unreal fish. The quest links her to her dead mother, who fished the same waters as a girl, but it soon comes to represent a much bigger search. Confronting her grandfather’s skepticism, she says, “So what, Grandpa, you don’t believe in anything you can’t see? You believe we don’t have souls?” She’s not quite sure herself, but she’s making a go of it.
All of Doerr’s characters, as they are batted about by memory and circumstance, find solace in the beauty and mystery of nature. It’s in this capacity that they serve most overtly as stand-ins for the author. Doerr’s eye for natural detail is astounding. Countless, gorgeously executed descriptions of the natural world pepper Memory Wall—droplets of water leaving a fingertip and reflecting back tiny shards of light before entering a river; an imagined “galaxy” of prehistoric clams flapping their shells at the sun—and every one of them feels like Doerr’s heart on the page, laid open.
A funny thing about this kind of gushing, no matter how masterfully done: It can get a bit old. Over time, Doerr’s setting details ceased to sneak up and wow me and instead began to arrive at too predictable a rhythm, often at too far a remove from character. Stories stalled. Mother nature’s unflagging benevolence began to grate. This is the flipside of Doerr’s ever-respectful worldview, and it applies to his characters, as well. I could have used a moral lapse or two. Maybe a crummy, hurtful decision. Doerr cares so deeply about these people that he’s clearly reluctant to instill them with anything so unsavory as a bad intention. However threatened they may be, they are seldom a danger to themselves.
Yet, when these stories are working, you hardly notice. Doerr is at his best, I think, in the collection’s final piece, a sweeping, ambitious novella titled “Afterworld,” which takes us back and forth in time and across the globe in the company of an epileptic named Esther. As an imperiled child in World War II Hamburg, her seizures are terrifying affairs that usher in strange, prophetic visions. Much later, in the twilight of her life, they serve as conduits to both visions and memory, providing immense peace as she begins to take leave of her body. In a moment of lucidity, she encapsulates an idea that Doerr has been fleshing out over the course of the book:
Why, Esther wonders, do any of us believe our lives lead outward through time? How do we know we aren’t continually traveling inward, toward our centers? Because this is how it feels to Esther when she sits on her deck in Geneva, Ohio, in the last spring of her life; it feels as if she is being drawn down some path that leads deeper inside, toward a miniature, shrouded, final kingdom that has waited within her all along.
The triumph of Memory Wall is the sureness with which it convinces us to pay attention, both to the world around us and to the kingdom within. We’re all in decline. But with a little work, that decline can feel a lot like ascension.