Anthony Doerr — Memory Wall

One of the elusive pleasures of reading is discovering an author that has somehow slipped through your own personal cracks, an author that once found, seems to have been writing just for you all along, you were just too busy or preoccupied to notice. The best part of finally finding each other, even if unbeknownst to the other party, is much the same as in any new relationship; there are stories to be told, histories to be learned—the literary equivalent of a new continent to be explored.

In Anthony Doerr’s case, the quest covers the entire globe—poking into corners of the world you may have missed. Doerr’s latest collection of short stories, Memory Wall, wanders from South Africa to Wyoming, from a Korean no man’s land to a soon-to-be flooded Chinese village, and from post-Soviet Lithuania to the horror of World War II Germany, yet there remains a common human thread that keeps the far-flung places from seeming alien, or even so very different from home.

The collection is bookended by two novellas dealing with two very different women at the end of their respective lives. The title piece carefully extends a toe into the realm of science fiction, showing a white suburban Cape Town woman who is suffering from Alzheimer’s desperately trying to hang on to her memories by having them recorded on discs to be played back at will. The memory wall is both the disorganized map-cum-art project that she constructs in an attempt to make sense of a life that is quickly becoming a series of digitized vignettes as well as the rock cliffs that her late amateur paleontologist husband prowled searching for proof of a deeper permanence.

The story takes an unexpected turn when two men break into the woman’s house to play through her memories looking for clues to a major find that her husband may have made right before he died. The men soon figure out that it’s pretty easy to burglarize someone who isn’t going to remember that you were there, and the subtext of the cultural power imbalance comes glaringly apparent as the younger of the two men experiences the woman’s memories, disconnected episode by episode. We soon learn that she wasn’t all that nice of a person, which was an interesting way for Doerr to go since up until then, we were feeling quite sorry for the woman. At that point, loyalties realign, and the young man becomes the hero/sacrificial lamb to root for.

The final story, Afterworld, is a ghost story of sorts and deals with a Holocaust survivor whose epileptic fits have given her a window into another world that has both sustained and haunted her throughout her life. A Jewish orphan in Hamburg at the worst time possible to be either of those things, Esther Gramm’s out-of-body experiences afford her insights that the other orphan girls don’t fully appreciate until it is much too late.

While having a fit, she has a vision of the bleak future and brings back an explanation of how other people’s memories keep us tethered to this world, “In another world, folded inside the living world, we wait. We wait until everyone who knew us as children has died. And when the last one of them dies, we finally die our third death.”

Not everything is grim, however, Esther also catches a glimpse of those ready to move on, an encampment of pilgrims in tents on the edge of a great forest, and sharing this vision ultimately saves her life. Of course, since she remains living, the other girls who were murdered by the Nazis are stuck waiting around in a bombed-out limbo, trying in vain to contact her.

Alone with the aged Esther, her nephew Robert gets her to share her memories of the war for a thesis project he is supposed to be working on, and finally becomes a hero in his own right at the end of the story and Esther’s life. Memory is the thread that connects all of the stories in Doerr’s book in much the same way it connects everyone in real life. Whether you cherish them, are losing them, or are haunted by them, memories are what make us who we are as well as what creates the world itself.

“Every hour, Robert thinks, all over the globe, an infinite number of memories disappear, whole glowing atlases dragged into graves. But during that same hour children are moving about, surveying territory that seems to them entirely new. They push back the darkness; they scatter memories behind them like bread crumbs. The world is remade.”



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