What Remains of a Self: Joanna Luloff’s Remind Me Again What Happened

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In an interview, the fiction writer Mavis Gallant once described waking from an anesthetic after surgery, so groggy she knew only two things: that she was a writer and that she was from Quebec. This anecdote returned to me while reading Joanna Luloff’s sly, slow burn of a novel, Remind Me Again What Happened, in which Claire, a globetrotting journalist in her thirties, contracts a virus that wipes out wide swaths of her memory. Who are we to ourselves, and what remains of a self, without our memories? In Claire’s case, the infection also compromises her motor coordination and leaves her with near-daily seizures, making her suddenly dependent on her husband. Recuperating back in Vermont, where her husband works as a reporter for a local newspaper, Claire tries, with the help of their longtime mutual friend, Rachel, to piece together who she used to be.

Smoothly alternating among these three points of view, Luloff—author of the story collection The Beach at Galle Road—captures how individual facets of our diverse selves emerge relative to the different people in our lives. Her three protagonists, having either lost or abandoned their parents, have since their early twenties created their own unconventional family, complete with warped dynamics and dirty laundry. Charlie is a timid, rule-following Englishman, Claire an exuberant, intrepid (or as Charlie sees it, reckless) American, and Rachel, whose greatest fault is her reticence, is “the keeper of our shared memories.” With Claire suddenly the vulnerable one, the others’ roles inevitably shift. To fill in Claire’s “black hole” of memory, all three must revisit and reassess the past, divulging to the reader what they dare not reveal to one another. And though there are no grand Rashomon-style discrepancies—just small, smartly nuanced divergences—the shifting surfaces and trap doors of their confessions expose a trail of secrets, creating a compelling story of power dynamics in love, marriage, and friendship.

Outwardly the book seems to position itself as an existential mystery in the realm of Patrick Modiano’s Missing Person or W. G. Sebald’s works of lost history and lapses of the self; like Sebald, Luloff includes black and white photographs of places and people, evidence to help retrieve missing memories. But the surprising comparison that ultimately, and more saliently, came to me was “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s seminal tale of a woman’s captivity at the hands of supposedly well-meaning men. For as much as Luloff circles around questions of memory, the stealth narrative that emerges is one of a woman’s lost independence and subsequent confinement.

Indeed, it is Claire’s newly domestic life and her necessary reliance on others, rather than the specific debilitations of amnesia, that most pain her. Though her mental condition, clinical brain damage, manifests as seizures rather than as madness, she, too, is at the mercy of both her husband and a male doctor, chaffing at their proscriptions. Trapped at home with Charlie and Rachel and their “triangle of good intentions,” she yearns to escape their “conspiracy of remembrance.” Luloff is careful to make sure none of the three protagonists is more fallible than the others—“we were all capable of being brutal in our own ways,” Charlie admits—but while Claire’s behavior can be exasperating and Rachel’s frustrating, Charlie’s begins to take on a sinister tinge. At times patronizing and infantilizing, Charlie also becomes (if understandably) impatient, snapping at Claire for questions that, newly a mystery to herself as much as to him, she can’t help asking. Like the husband in Alice Munro’s classic “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” he begins to wonder if his wife is pretending to have forgotten certain things. Rachel chides Charlie for “being jealous, or maybe protective is the better world, of your own past.” But even knowing that Charlie’s distrust must have its roots in some previous betrayal, the reader senses what Claire might have been trying to escape even well before her illness.

In this way, Remind Me Again What Happened becomes a story not just of selfhood, but also of sovereignty. When not conforming, Claire is viewed as unruly; when she gets into trouble, it’s because of “the usual. I didn’t stay put.” The better we get to know her, the more she seems to represent the threat any strong, independent woman poses to the status quo, and her illness becomes the punishment for that autonomy.

Luloff’s depictions of the devastations of Claire’s illness are fully convincing, perhaps because her own mother survived just such a calamity. Luloff portrays how, even when the particulars of one’s experience have been lost, underlying emotions endure, including residual annoyance and distrust. At the same time, Claire’s newfound innocence allows for the insights of a child, such as when she tries to understand why she and Charlie have kept presents they don’t necessarily like. Luloff also depicts the strangeness of no longer knowing one’s own preferences or style. When Claire says, “I have the hardest time deciding what I like,” one wonders to what extent this ambivalence reflects not just aesthetics but her feelings about her loved ones.

By keeping the novel, like Claire, generally housebound, Luloff creates an aura of genuine claustrophobia. We barely see the surrounding city (Burlington), and with few peripheral characters, most of the scenes are of dyads or triads. At first, I found it problematic that the three narrative voices sounded to me very similar. Then I began to wonder if perhaps this similarity was intentional, a reflection of the way married couples begin to resemble each other. The love triangle begins to feel incestuous, its interactions subtly strange. There is a lot of kissing on foreheads and cheeks, seemingly benign actions that come to seem like evasions of true intimacy or discussion.

If there’s a fault in the book, it’s that because of the confessional narration, there is much explanation in place of action or subplot. Even as the alternating, often short, chapters create a gathering tension, I wanted some external or secondary storyline—perhaps something happening in town—to encroach on the threesome’s enclosed world. There’s a moving backstory about a wonderful character named Bernard, but he enters and exits within one chapter. That said, the book is carried by excellent psychological insights, such as this depiction of the dynamics of unrequited love:

I used to try to touch him, just to be certain that he would pull away, and it wasn’t just my imagination. I liked his discomfort; it was the only source of power I still had over him.

Luloff’s elegant prose includes understated descriptions (Charlie’s “uneven teeth”) and phrasing reflective of character, as when Charlie describes how time “never quite seemed generous enough to us.”

There’s much loss in this novel—of loved ones and of the self, of trust and of memories; its playful title belies the weight of its subject. Remind Me Again What Happened raises meaningful questions, as much about memory and selfhood as about the ways we trap ourselves and others. As Charlie says, “When you’re used to people keeping secrets from you, you become a good spy.”

Daphne Kalotay is the author of the novels Russian Winter, Sight Reading, and Blue Hours, forthcoming in July 2019. She teaches creative writing at Princeton University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. More from this author →