The Experience of Someone Else’s Brain: Aaron Angello’s The Fact of Memory

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The Fact of Memory is a cerebral rumination in which one realizes that someone else’s brain-cud looks, smells, feels, tastes, and sounds much like one’s own. What I mean to say is that this book is both a very specific cross-section of a single, very specific human’s brain in a very specific time and space, yet also an accurate representation of the inner workings of an average human’s brain in limitless space and time. In other words—just kidding, no more metaphors. For now. Instead, here are the bones of Aaron Angello’s book: Originally written as an exercise for a writing workshop, Facts of Memory is a self-described series of 114 musings, each based on a single word, in order, of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 29.” For each word, one word per day, the author meditates and writes a piece based on the thoughts and memories evoked by each word.

The writing is somewhat curated in terms of narrative, but it generally comes off as a written transcript of what you might hear eavesdropping on someone next to you who is on the phone. You pretend to be immersed in your own book, but you haven’t turned a page in five minutes and your eyes continue to dart over to the phone caller’s face in hopes of gleaning something of what’s being said on the other side. There is no opportunity for follow-up questions, which is an incredible bummer since I just simply MUST know more about this little gem in one of the “I” sections that begins, “For two winters, my favorite toy was a block of ice that had slid from the drainpipe on the side of our house . . . ” I’ll leave it at that lest I spoil it, but I want to know more about this ice toy and what it meant, and if it can now mean something to me. This and so many other parts have the glimmer of a rock-embedded jewel while we are without a chisel.

Some pieces contain clear memories, others are more heady and opaque, still others contemplate the theory of poetry (including one in which a slug writes a poem), and some are abstract and image-heavy (delights, each and every one) like “Trouble,” which features broody greaser-type guys who do some wall-leaning and navel-gazing and are oblivious of the person they want to be. Or “Rich,” in which a man discovers a musical instrument in an unexpected place. Or even “Earth,” where a woman finds something unexpected in her tomato and something even more unexpected in the soil and, somehow, doesn’t just totally lose it??

A few of the musings like “Outcast,” “Thoughts,” and “Break” are a bit hand-holdy in their narrative paths, seemingly the products of an important point the author didn’t want the reader to miss. In “Break,” after presenting some compelling images for reflection—refracted light that causes a fish to appear where it’s not, a broken arm dredged up from a basketball memory, and the beautiful moon (we love her)—the piece concludes, “Traversing the shortest distance between two points is not only impossible, it’s terribly uninteresting.” Which feels like an “all roads lead to Rome” situation even if we’d been meandering towards Florence. The implied mistrust of the reader’s ability to come to their own conclusions somewhat takes the breath out of these pieces, but they are few and far between, and, I suppose, without this aspect, the book would feel a little less human (a little less earnest and excited to connect and share).

Somewhat unsurprisingly, my favorite pieces present scenes and images to the reader and leave us to our own interpretations. In “State,” there are two moose standing in a beaver pond in the wilderness and two moose in the city. The wild moose are going about their business and the city moose are also going about their business but it’s actually just their likeness being used on a billboard to sell beer. And although city moose do exist in the flesh (see cultural celebrity Buzzwinkle), the reader begins to wonder why the moose behind the beer on the billboard actually do make some suds sound so good, and, really what does that say about us that we crave experiences with nature but do everything in our power to eradicate and tame it where we spend most of our time? These image-heavy pieces are thought-provoking with just enough of a push to help the reader along.

More than the individual pieces themselves, I loved experiencing the thought patterns of a brain in someone else’s skull, seen throughout the book in echoed images, sentence structures, and voice; in conclusions and worldview. Juice from handheld fruits trickles down two different characters’ wrists in different parts of the book. A fairy tear resurfaces. And—a slight nod to the book’s inspiration—a stage in the woods weaves its way through the memories.

Similarly, trancelike list pieces such as “And” (one “and” of the six in “Sonnet 29”) lilt and lull in a sensory journey until they fade away: “A steady wind. Wind and blowing leaves. Blowing leaves and bamboo chimes. Bamboo chimes and seagulls. Seagulls and the first morning sun,” and so on into the sunset. Just as these were created by the author’s meditations, the reader can almost use them as guided meditations. The sheer variety of tone and mood between each piece (written between sleeps) is a testament to the brain’s daily fluctuations of emotion, and these remind us of the calmer, more grateful days.

In the second half of the book is a bizarre, funny, tilt-a-whirl, infectious, looping earworm, brought on by Angello’s “Of,” in which two elderly people blankly stare and listen to a record that begins to skip. “ . . . all for the lo-/ -ve of you /-ve of you / -ve of you / -ve of you” will bounce around in the background of your brain as you read Angello’s remaining pieces. A carnivalesque, yet charming, haunting that I have, with the utmost gremliny schadenfreude energy, hopefully now regifted to you. Or not, maybe that’s just my thing. But you’ll find yours, that’s the beauty of this read.

In the end, after having exhausted the gamut of clinical, theoretical, anthropological, and psychological reflections, and having moved on to the frenzied random associations brought on by my own meta meditation on these individual pieces, I’m left thinking of literature. How the new builds on the old, but never in this way. Shakespeare isn’t evoked. “Sonnet 29” remains a closed loop of writing, yet still, they’re connected. Inspiration doesn’t bleed from the poem into Angello’s book; instead, it rearranges the bones of Shakespeare’s work and thus, the dinosaur becomes a dragon. Or, if you want a more thriller-type metaphor: Through Angello, Shakespeare’s poem becomes an artful and contemplative version of a collaged ransom note, scrambled and whole, with a wholly different meaning, to be interpreted by the reader and their relation to the kidnapped (cue orchestra hit, darkness, and a single spotlight shining down on Fact of Memory).

But, perhaps, maybe admittedly, Angello says it best in “Think” where he writes, “Without context the most loved bit of verse, no matter how famous, no matter how well made, is just a meaningless scrap, tossed by wind, unnoticed.” The same, I think, can be said for the individual words in “Sonnet 29”—unnoticed, that is, by all but Angello, who points with a question mark, and we look.

Esa Grigsby is a Portland-based editor, writer, and farmer whose work can be seen in Entropy and at More from this author →