Tuesday, October 18, 2011
What Anthony Doerr's Memory Wall may really be about
The title story in Anthony Doerr's collection "Memory Wall" is unconventional, to put it mildly. Not that it's a totally weird or experimental story - what makes it so unusual is that it is in tone, style, and structure entirely conventional contemporary realism, but there is one element - a central element, that is out of the world of futurism and scifi: a doctor (in South Africa, the setting of the story - unusual for an American writer, but we'll get to that) has developed a device to help Alzheimer's patients recover memories by downloading memories from the brain onto "cartridges" and then, later, playing those cartridges directly into the brain. Story is about an elderly woman, one of the patients of the Dr. Amnesty. It turns out that there's a serious black market in these cartridges - and also, one of her memories will unlock the mystery of the location of a valuable fossil much sought by collectors. Two guys break in, steal her cartridges, complications ensue. Now there's an incredible buy-in required to accept or believe in this (long - 70 pages) story, and I didn't buy in all the way - not just to the scifi-like premise but the to impossibility of anyone's actually recovering the exact right memory (out of billions, presumably) and using it to track to down clues to the location of the fossil, etc. Yet once you get past this suspension of disbelief, this story touches on a lot of powerful themes - class, race, poverty, crime, medical issues - it's set in an indeterminate future - but I also wonder about its allegorical significance: is it maybe really about a country coming to terms with its racist past? (The doctor's name is no coincidence.) Is it about our willingness to forget the horrors of our history and the costs of resurrecting dead memories? Or the healing in doing so?