Memory Wall
by Anthony Doerr

Scribner, 2010

Reviewed by Joshua Foster

I first heard Anthony Doerr, then Idaho’s Writer-In-Residence, lecturing to a group of undergraduates on the art of writing. Doerr explained that a personal goal in his own craft was to, “Make the stone stony.” Though he attributed the concept to another writer, Doerr has embraced the philosophy as his own and exemplifies it in his most recent short story collection Memory Wall.

Even the vocabulary of the idea—make a stone stony—exudes an antiquated simplicity that stands against a literary landscape where wittiness, disillusionment, and abstraction seem to reign supreme. I’ve always appreciated what painters Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb embraced in their own artistic manifesto: “We favor the simple expression of complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.”

The word flat carries negative connation in writer-speak. A flat character, a flat scene, a flat landscape. But to appreciate Doerr’s stony stories—just as to marvel at Rothko’s flat squares—allows a deeper understanding for the varied terrain of our complicated world.

In the 267 pages and 7 stories in Memory Wall, Doerr transports the reader to a future South Africa where memories are catalogued on cartridges; to barren Laramie, Wyoming where a couple struggles to conceive; to cold Idaho as a man tries to navigate his divorce, his elderly father, and his son’s dishonorable discharge from the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone; to China’s Village 113, scheduled for submergence; to Lithuania, where a fifteen year old girl from Kansas is placed with her grandfather and together they fish the River Nemunas for an allusive lunker; to a dreamy account of an elderly woman at the end of her life, memories drifting to her German orphanage at the onset of World War II to her current mortality in Ohio; to the story of a boy and girl in a marsh in Detroit.

Doerr’s simplistic, striking style makes these diverse landscapes grow stony and tangible. Doerr is a master of the short story—his accolades and awards include the O. Henry Prize, a National Magazine Award, a Pushcart Prize, and inclusion in the Best American Short Story series—and one of his unique abilities is to aggrandize the form to novelistic proportions. Three of the stories (“Memory Wall,” “Village 113,” and “Afterworld”) could easily stretch into two hundred pages. And his shorter, condensed stories carry just as much heft and scope.

In the spirit of Terrain.org’s currently themed issue “Image,” allow me to excerpt a few of my favorites.

An image through dialogue from “Memory Wall” (here Alma, homeowner and employer, slowly losing her memories, speaks to Pheko, her housekeeper and employee):

“There were times when I was happy and times when I was not,” continues Alma. “Like anyone. To say a person is a happy person or an unhappy person is ridiculous. We are a thousand different kinds of people every hour.”

Concrete, clear images viewed by Imogene in “Procreate, Generate”:

Imogene beings to notice pregnant women everywhere. They clamber out of minivans at the Loaf ’N Jug; they hunker in Walmart aisles holding infant-sized pajamas to the light. A pregnant repairwoman services the office copier; a pregnant client spills orange juice in the conference room.

A startling, imagistic scene from “The Deep” (here, fourteen-year-old Tom—given four years max to live because of his heart condition—is led by Ruby, his classmate, on an unknown quest to a marsh):

Ruby pitches the far end of the hose into the water. With waxen cord she binds the other end to the pump. Then she fills her pockets with rocks. She wades out, looks back, says, You pump, and puts the hose into her mouth. The swim mask goes over her eyes; her face goes into the water.

 The marsh closes over Ruby’s back, and the hose trends away from the marsh. Tom begins to pump. The sky slides along overhead. Loops of garden hose float under the light out there, shifting now and then. Occasional bubbles rise, moving gradually farther out.     

One minute, two minutes. Tom pumps. His heart does its fragile work. He should not be here. He should not be here while this skinny, spellbinding girl drowns herself in the marsh. If that’s what she’s doing. One of Mr. Weem’s similes comes to him: You’re trembling like a needle to the pole.

To cite Thomas Carlyle: “Simplicity has been held a mark of truth; it is also a mark of genius.” Doerr’s prose envelops truth, genius, and simplicity. His straightforward storytelling and deeply complex characters offer the reader striking images and heartfelt insights into our own simple and complex world.

~~~

Joshua Foster is the nonfiction editor for Terrain.org. His work—both short stories and personal essays—often deals with rural culture and habitat and has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize, Best of the Web Anthology, and published in other journals, anthologies, and magazines. He earned MFA degrees in Fiction and Nonfiction Writing from the University of Arizona and is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction Writing at Stanford University.

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