“Constantly and Continuously, the World Remade”
A Review of Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall
by Matthew Martin
The worst that can be said about author Anthony Doerr is that he’s a man who cannot escape his loves. If anything, Doerr is hogtied to his passions: he adores science and distance, the limits of knowledge, precognition and the supernatural, geology and time. Like many of his protagonists, Doerr is a collector, a researcher, a writer-down, an author who clearly can’t stand not knowing things; just as he researched conchology and clairvoyance in his first collection The Shell Collector, and hydrology and carcinology in his novel About Grace, here he studies cryptozoology and neurology, and more than anything else, memory.
Memory Wall is about memory’s ineluctable loss and methods of preservation. The collection contains four short stories bookended by two novellas, and all deal with what and how we recollect. The novellas, where this theme is the strongest, are linked by their protagonists, two elderly women trying to “defy erasure” by saving what they can of their recollections; described in the latter story, they are “glowing atlases dragged into graves.” The collection begins with a quote by Luis Buñuel from his autobiography My Last Sigh, to a similar effect: “You have to begin to lose your memory…to realize that memory is what makes our lives…Without [our memory], we are nothing.”
As in The Shell Collector, these stories travel the globe, from Wyoming to Korea to China to Lithuania to Hamburg, ending up in Doerr’s hometown of Cleveland. The stories’ scope, also seen in the author’s geographically restless novel About Grace, best show Doerr’s principal strength: his ability to zoom in and out so well, with such deft rhythm.
Because the worst that can be said about Doerr is also the best: He has boundless curiosity and imagination—his stories textual outpourings of a mind sprent with too many enthusiasms—and an ability to find within his farflung settings the intimate humanity of the inhabitants there. His stories flit through time seemingly heedless, Doerr choosing the most intimate and integral moments of his characters’ lives and illustrating them before jumping forward another three months, another half-year. Time in Memory Wall is often an antagonist, in the loss it signifies: as it moves forward without apology or hope of deterrence, it swallows what it takes with it. “What is memory anyway?” the narrator of the eponymous novella asks. “How can it be such a frail, perishable thing?”
That story, winner of the 2010 National Magazine Award for Fiction, began as an assignment for McSweeney’s. The literary journal asked several writers to “travel somewhere in the world and imagine life there in 2024.” Inspired as well by a study of memory by neuroscientist Terrence Sejnowski in John Brockman’s What We Believe but Cannot Prove (and with similarities to Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Doerr chose Cape Town, South Africa, for his 2024 story of widow Alma Konachek. Alma keeps a wall of cartridges in her house, each containing a memory she can plug into her head, many having to do with her late husband Howard, a paleontologist, and his discovery of a “gorgon” skeleton. The story braids Alma’s life with that of Luvo, a young man who sneaks into Alma’s house to find the cartridge with the lucrative paleontological secret. Each of the two characters are racing, Alma to keep what she remembers, the young man to find the gorgon. Here, as in many of his stories, Doerr uses the tactic of suspense, letting dread paralyze his characters even as they push inexorably onward.
The story is beautifully written, deeply imbued with poeticism and concern for the emotional reality of its characters. Memory emerges ubiquitous: Early in the story, Alma visualizes it as “Water in a vase, chewing away at the stem of roses. Rust colonizing the tumblers in a lock. Sugar eating at the dentin of teeth, a river eroding its banks. Alma could think of a thousand metaphors, and all of them were inadequate.” Even as Luvo excavates Alma’s memories in their cartridges, he tries to remember his own, being a fifteen-year-old orphan with few glimpses of his past.
Doerr recently stated in an interview that “the path to the universal is through the individual. Only through the smallest details, through the sights and smells and sounds of one person’s moment-by-moment experience, can a writer convey the immensity that is a human life.” In “Village 113,” a Chinese hamlet is scheduled to be flooded by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. The story, far from a political statement, is a study of the difficulty of retaining familial bonds: a seed-collecting mother wishes to stay in the village instead of being relocated to a far-away city to live with her son, a dam engineer who quietly attempts to persuade her to leave. Again, memory is key: the woman feels she is being asked to forsake the wealth of her memory for her son, to move someplace foreign and sterile, someplace to which she has no kinship, and so she remains as her village evacuates. Here reality becomes metaphor as memory “is a house with ten thousand rooms; it is a village slated to be inundated.”
Memory crops up everywhere: The very short (for Doerr) “The Demilitarized Zone” is a largely epistolary story about a son stationed at a garrison in South Korea and his letters to his father. Again, far from advancing an agenda on global politics, the story concentrates on the lives caught in these situations: During the son’s containment, his father and mother have separated, and the father struggles with how to be a two-way conduit of painful information, his son unaware of the separation, his wife unaware of the containment. Further, the father fights to reconcile his own father’s memories of the Korean War with his son’s being stationed there now.
“The River Nemunas” is about an orphaned fifteen-year-old girl named Allison who flies from Kansas to Lithuania to live with her grandfather. There, she befriends an old Russian woman who fishes with Allie on the Nemunas for a mythical sturgeon. The sturgeon becomes an allegory for her grandfather’s loss of memory—the more he claims it’s not there anymore, the harder she looks for it.
Memory is a precious and ephemeral privilege here, characters holding on to what their minds allow them to keep, and this is best shown in last story “Afterworld,” about Jewish refugee Esther Gramm in her final years, as she remembers her childhood orphanage friends and their escapes from Holocaust death camps. The story is informed by Doerr’s own grandmother’s battles with dementia, framed around Esther’s grandson struggling to document his grandmother’s memories as they slip away from her.
It’s in this last story that Doerr surprises with another of his habits, so often unrepresented in modern literary fiction, and that’s to write a positive ending where a positive ending is warranted, to not give in to dour inevitability or easy fatalism. Always at one with his themes, he closes “Afterworld” on a note of hope: as “every hour…all over the globe, an infinite number of memories disappear,…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 like bread crumbs. The world is remade.”
Anthony Doerr has won three O. Henry Prizes, a Pushcart Prize, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, the Rome Prize, has been anthologized extensively, and is a current Guggenheim Fellow who teaches at the Warren Wilson College in Boise, Idaho.
Matthew Martin is a student in the University of Memphis’ Creative Writing MFA program, the nonfiction editor of the award-winning journal The Pinch, and has been published in the North Carolina Literary Review, The Colorado State Literary Review, the Colorado Springs Independent, and others